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.
John Medeski, of Medeski, Martin, and Wood, is one of those rare jazz players who generates full musical compositions from minimal thematic material. He began Tisziji Munoz' "It's Done" with a slow, ominous theme, using an impressionist palette and sonics reminiscent of science fiction and thriller film scores to explore vast untapped possibilities inherent in the music. In "You Are So Beautiful" and "Every Day People," he transformed the original melodies into rich musical constructions of sounds and shapes, reminiscent for this reviewer of the great jazz pianist, John Coates, Jr., who influenced Keith Jarrett and who would sit at the piano at places like the Deer Head Inn and improvise beautifully with only minimal attention to the melodic line or the standard AABA format. Medeski does something similar on the organhe lets the music flow from a source deep within himself. In his original composition,"Swamp Road," he showed how to take a rhythm and blues beat and supplement it with powerful sonorities to produce the equivalent of a complex symphonic movement.
Dr. Lonnie Smith, perhaps the world's only certified "Doctor of Groove" (whether he holds a doctorate in any other subject is an open question), is the total apotheosis of "soul organ," with a whispering sound that wants to break out into gospel ecstasy. Wearing his trademark turban, he looked like a spiritual elder who had given his life over to an esoteric god. Yet, his music revealed him to be a jazz guru who cut his teeth in the 1960's with the best of the Blue Note Records artists of that quintessential bebop to hard bop era. His soulful version of Rodgers and Hart's "Spring is Here" had all the echoes of those halcyon days when jazz stretched itself to its limits. His drummer, Jamaya Williams, played with the electricity merited by Smith's energies, and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg was able to go far out on an emotional limb, while resiliently improvising linear movements typical of Pat Martino and one of Smith's cohorts, George Benson. To lighten up the occasion, Dr. Smith did riotous imitations of Johnny Mathis and Little Stevie Wonder that, though totally out of context, somehow felt "right on." There are decidedly right and wrong ways to infuse humor into jazz gigs, and the doctor was right on point, even to the moment when, at the end of the concert, he mischievously tried to swipe Trudy Pitts' massive honorary bouquet from her!
So you had these four masters of perhaps the most complex of all musical instruments up there showing their stuff, and what you heard were four unique approaches of players who came up in roughly the same tradition and yet took it in markedly different directions. Story telling (Pitts), swinging (De Francesco), planting deep roots (Medeski), and soulful grooving (Smith) are all parts of the jazz idiom. There is no music as individualistic as jazz, and thankfully no one is going to tell any of these staggeringly capable musicians how to behave.