Organists (in order of appearance): Trudy Pitts
, Joey DeFrancesco
; John Medeski; Dr. Lonnie Smith
Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Verizon Hall
April 30, 2010
This was a blowout of a concert, culminating with four of the world's greatest contemporary jazz organists battling it out on four Hammond B3s (with legendary Philly drummer Byron Landham backing them up on drums.) Great sounds, great vibes, great virtuosity, and well deserving of the enthusiastic standing ovation they received.
But before that, these organ masters showed their wares individually with their own rhythm sections. It was a study in similarities and contrasts, all with the felt presence of the late great Jimmy Smith. Before saying a bit about each player, it's good to be reminded of what it takes to be a jazz organist of the caliber of these four masters. First, you have to make the keyboard second nature, which means you have to be a good jazz pianist. Then, you need to jump around several keyboards all at once. Next, you must master all the pedals and stops to produce the different sounds. Finally, you have to improvise not only melodically and harmonically, but also with the stops and pedals to achieve various moods and dynamics. Talk about multi-tasking! It's like playing three-dimensional chess with a fast-changing time clock. No wonder, then, that whereas there are many fine jazz players on other instruments, you can count the number of top-flight jazz organists on your fingers. And here we had four of the absolute top of the line working out for us, and each determined to give it his or her best shot. Such chemistry, to say the least, makes for an explosive, exciting evening of music.
Trudy Pitts came on first. "Philadelphia's greatest secret," as her husband and drummer, Mr. C (Bill Carney) calls her, she was mentored by Jimmy Smith and others, and is one of the most versatile organists (and pianists) in the business. She stepped up to the in-house Fred J. Cooper Memorial Organ, a state of the art instrument with a massive remote console on stage and powerful pipes hovering high above the proscenium. First, she did an improvised prelude that showed off the instrument, including references to Bach within a medley of jazz standards and gospel themes. Then she went over to the Hammond B3 and did a set honoring Jimmy Smith and Fats Waller, including Waller's own "Jitterbug Waltz," Eubie Blake's "Memories of You," "Mean Perspectives," and ending with a self-accompanied vocal version of "Make Someone Happy," a number she has been working out around town, giving it the ironic and humorous twist of a sadly hysterical woman who can't seem to make it to the next bar (both musical and drinking). Pitts' organ technique was powerful, and she incorporated diverse musical elements and motifs into her playing, from blues to classical to echoes of other organists and pianists. She knows how to paint pictures and tell stories with her playing, and this is perhaps her unique signature among her peers.
Joey DeFrancesco is another Philadelphia hero, making it with Miles Davis and others as a young man, and having by now played and recorded with many top names in jazz, not to mention his own outstanding groups. Accompanied exquisitely by guitarist Paul Bollenbach and drummer Byron Landham, his approach differs from Pitts in emphasizing swing over mood. He plays the h--- out of a tune, and is totally on the money with his rhythm, speed, and agility, making the most of each split second. De Francesco is totally immersed in mainstream jazz, and unlike the other three organists on the bill, he never deviated for a moment from the straight-ahead "in your face" agenda. He is one of the most consistently disciplined players of any instrument. I first heard him live in the early 1980s, and his playing today has the same style as then, only more sophisticated and with even better chops. He took on "Wookie's Revenge" and "Be My Love" with state-of-the art perfection.
Then came jazz humor at its best, in DeFranceso's performance of "Moody's Mood for Love," the 1949 James Moody improvised alto sax solo that gave rise to the vocalese version by Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure, a version that Moody himself, in a sort of role reversal, now regularly sings during his performances. By providing a raucous imitation of the vocalizations of Moody, DeFrancesco added yet another twist to this curious and complicated history, even including virtual transcriptions of some of Moody's comedy-laced vocal riffs. DeFrancesco ended his set with "The Sermon," a Jimmy Smith original and the title song of one of his best-known Blue Note albums, in a version that had all the fervor of Smith and DeFrancesco combined.