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A Tribute to Dr. Lonnie Smith


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The great master of the Hammond B3 organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith, passed away in September 2021 at 79. Smith enjoyed a more than 50-year career at the vanguard of soul jazz. His influence extended far beyond that genre to electronic, hip-hop, and funk artists. Smith remained at the peak of his powers as a musician and a creative artist seeking to expand his vision and repertoire. Prior to his passing, he had been enjoying a late-career renaissance. In 2017, Smith was named an NEA Jazz Master, among the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a jazz musician in the United States. Smith was a Blue Note Records recording artist early in his career (1960s) and triumphantly returned to Blue Note in 2016 with one of his greatest works, Evolution. To quote my colleague, Dan Bilawsky, "the album is populated with raunchy riffs, greasy grooves, soulful sermons, tidal organ shifts, moody statements, hard-hitting solos, and punchy interjections, all of which help to enliven throwback songs, standards, and new pieces alike." That perfectly encapsulates the sound and spirit of Dr. Lonnie Smith. I had the pleasure of seeing Smith perform several times with his longstanding trio (with Jonathan Kreisberg and Johnathan Blake) and the Octet, which featured four horns and vocalist Alicia Olatuja. It was never less than a joyous experience (see my Jazz Dans La Nuit review from the Montreal Jazz Festival). In a Downbeat obituary, Blue Note President Don Was, stated that "Doc was a musical genius who possessed a deep, funky groove and a wry, playful spirit."

I had the great pleasure of attending a tribute to Dr. Lonnie Smith (June 6, 2022) at the Chelsea Table + Stage club in New York City. The tribute was organized by Holly Case, Smith's longtime manager, and partner. It featured a stellar group of musicians, including Johnathan Blake and Jonathan Kreisberg, his most durable musical partners in the last decade of his life. Blake emceed the event and perfectly set the tone of reverence and humor. Other musicians who participated in the event included Joe Lovano, Peter Bernstein, Allison Miller, Darrell Green, Bill Saxton, Richie Hart, Will Bernard, John Ellis, Greg Skaff, and Jason W. Marshall. They all played with Smith at some point in his career. To quote Joe Lovano, "Having Lonnie's embrace in my early 20s was a springboard into my future on the scene. He was my mentor and a true inspiration through the years." The event featured several outstanding organists, all of whom were influenced by the great master, including Will Blades, Pat Bianchi, Brian Charette and Mike LeDonne.

There were many musical highlights, including a fiery opening featuring Blake, Kreisberg, and Blades; Impressions performed by Lovano, Bernstein, Charette, and Miller; a blistering blues led by guitarist Hart with Blades and Green. The finale featured a performance of "Pilgrimage," one of Smith's signature compositions that he has recorded a few times over the years. It also appears on his final album, Breathe and includes lyrics by Lynne Merryl Koenigsberg and lovely vocals by Alicia Olatuja. In the event finale, Olatuja was featured on a drop-dead gorgeous version of the gospel-tinged song, which speaks to better times and new beginnings.

In addition to the musical performances, there were spoken tributes to the great master. The speeches paid homage to his musicianship, humanity, and devotion to his friends. There were great stories, many of which were both moving and hilarious. Smith was singularly unique, and his legacy will live on perpetually.
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