Dr. Lonnie Smith: But Beautiful

Chris M. Slawecki By

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Dr. Lonnie Smith-organist, composer, bandleader and now principal of Pilgrimage Records-is the Cheshire cat of jazz. He's been part of the scene for so long that, even though he's there, he sometimes disappears from view; when you do get a glimpse, the last thing you see and the first thing you remember is his warm and wise Buddha smile. Dr. Lonnie Smith smiles like he knows that he knows something that most people don't even know that they don't know.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Dr. Smith's house and family life were full of music, including and especially singing. He sang and played some trumpet in school, and as his maturation continued, he began hanging out at a local music store. In the late 1950s, the store's owner, Art Kubera, gave him the opportunity to learn how to play a Hammond organ. "Even though I didn't know how, I was able to play right from the beginning," Dr. Smith reflects. "I learned how to work the stops and that was it. It's a passion for me, so everything else came naturally." Dr. Smith still refers to Art Kubera as "my angel."

Dr. Smith began honing his playing in Buffalo clubs, where he was soon spotted by guitarist George Benson, who recruited him into his group, and by booking agent Jimmy Boyd, who found work for Benson and Smith in New York City and Harlem. John Hammond saw some of these shows and then signed them both to Columbia Records, which released Finger-Lickin' Good, Dr. Smith's debut, in 1966.

He was soon recruited by alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and his contributions to the million-selling Alligator Boogaloo (Blue Note, 1967) and Everything I Play is Funky (Blue Note, 1970) put Dr. Smith on the musical map to stay. Blue Note subsequently signed Dr. Smith, for whom he released his own titles Think! (1968), and Turning Point (1969), which opens with a joyous romp through the R&B workhorse "See Saw," by Don Covay and guitarist Steve Cropper, plus other soulful jazz (if not soul-jazz) classics along the way.

In subsequent decades, Dr. Smith has recorded a wide variety of projects for several different labels, including Foxy Lady: A Tribute to Hendrix (Musicmasters, 1994), in a trio with guitarist John Abercrombie and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith, and Boogaloo to Beck: A Tribute (Scufflin' Records, 2003), his homage to the folk/hip-hop pastiche master featuring saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. A long-term stay on Palmetto Records produced his funk workouts Too Damn Hot (2004), Jungle Soul (2006) and Rise Up! (2009).

In 2010, Dr. Smith formed a new trio with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams to record Spiral (Palmetto, 2010). Dr. Smith sounds revitalized by their influx, most notably in a high-energy take on Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood" and a swarming, stinging buzz through Harold Mabern's "Beehive." Both tunes were reprised on 2012's The Healer, joined by Dr. Smith's own luscious "Backtrack" and soul-searching "Pilgrimage" (on which he plays and sings), plus a languid stroll across Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge."

Comprised of live sets recorded at the Jazz Standard in New York City and at a town plaza in Hungary at the end of the trio's 2011 tour of Europe, The Healer also heralds the debut of Dr. Smith's own label, Pilgrimage Records. "If you told me back in 1966 when I recorded my first LP that I would be starting my own record label in the year 2012, I would've said, 'That's what you think!'" Dr. Smith wrote in The Healer's notes.

Dr. Smith is a member of the Buffalo Music and Jazz Organ Fellowship Halls of Fame and will bring his trio back to New York's Jazz Standard in January 2013.

All About Jazz: You have an incredible back catalog but let's start with your new record first; in fact, let's start with the band on The Healer: How did this trio come together?

Dr. Lonnie Smith: Jonathan Kreisberg first worked with me years ago. I needed a guitarist. I heard this young man and he was quite a guitarist. He worked so fine, so well, with me. When his name came up again, the fellow handling me mentioned that Jonathan used to work with me and I quickly remembered him. We called him and it lined up perfect.

Then we heard about Jamire Williams. I listened to him and it was another perfect fit. When we got together and played, it even sounded better than what I heard in my head. It was just what I needed. It worked for me.

We enjoy each other. We enjoy playing with each other, and they're quite great musicians. They do a really wonderful job, and they add beautiful music to what I'm playing, so it's great.

AAJ: Is there a specific reason why the trio has been such a successful/popular format for organ players?

DLS: It's a great marriage. What I love about the guitar/organ trio is that, when you have a horn, it sounds fat. It sounds large-big-with a saxophone. And when they're playing, you're accompanying the horn player, but when you're playing, they're just basically standing there.

But the guitarist is there to support you just like the drummer supports you and does not stop just because I start playing. It creates great rhythms, and I love rhythm. I love great rhythm. Guitar adds a really nice tone to the organ; they kind of blend beautifully together.

In the earlier days, I used a lot of horns. I love horns also. But an organ trio leaves you more expression room: If you're soloing and you have a lot of horn players, you give the trumpet player, you give the saxophonist, you give the guitarist all something to play, and then when it's time for you to play, you don't even want to play because it's gone on for so long, you know? It gets too long. Of course, some people are just longwinded. You sometimes say, "Hey, wait a minute-I would like to get to another song tonight."

AAJ: How did that amazing, if sometimes crazy, arrangement of Harold Mabern's "Beehive" come together?

DLS: When I first heard that song, I loved it. It just came to me. I don't know what happened. I knew Harold and called him and said, "Harold, I'm going to play this tune, but it's not going to be the same way." And he said, "Oh, don't worry about it. I know it's going to be nice anyway." He enjoyed it. The original was entirely different-Lee Morgan was with Harold and it was a whole different thing. It doesn't sound like it's the same song.

AAJ: It almost gets kind of a jazz-rock fusion thing going on there. It's certainly light years removed from music like Think or Turning Point, for example.

DLS: Oh, for sure. The strangest thing about Think is that I don't even think about playing those songs. But folks really want to hear that.

AAJ: There's a very spiritual aspect to your music, even down to the title of The Healer. Since so many people were first exposed to the sound of organ through the church organ, was that where you first heard it, too?

DLS: It was in the church. It was in the church for sure. I used to hear that, and I used to hear people like Milt Buckner, Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith, Count Basie-all of 'em. I heard a lot of people play organ. The organ just really touched me in a special place, really touched me. I didn't know that I was going to play organ at all, had no idea that was going to happen until Art Kubera made it happen, and that was it. My brothers and I used to play and I was a vocalist. I wanted to play, but I didn't know I was going to play organ. Didn't have any idea that was going to happen.

AAJ: Is there a connection between music and healing?

DLS: Yes, for sure. I'm going to tell you the story of a friend of mine. He played trumpet, and his name was Bucky Thorpe. He played trumpet in New York. Bucky had a bout with diabetes and lost his legs and the whole bit, but he would still go around and play. And then he had a stroke. He was in the hospital; we would go up to see him and he would just be laying there. We would talk to him but he was just laying there. He couldn't say anything.

So we took a radio up there. With the radio, we heard music, and you could see his fingers moving like he was playing trumpet. He moved his fingers like he was playing. Therefore, I know what music will do.

And I know because I've been sick to the point where I couldn't play, I couldn't walk, and I lost all my playing abilities, and my speaking. When I could walk a little bit, I'd walk past a keyboard and touch it. That's all I could do. That was it. This went on for months. I don't know how long exactly, about six months or so, but then it started to come back. And when it came back, it wasn't what I had in my head. What I had in my head, I couldn't play, it wouldn't come out. But later on, it did, because all the stuff that I had in my head was still there. You see, you have to retrain your thoughts and get it together again.

AAJ: What timeframe are you talking about here?

DLS: Well...a lot of people have all kinds of things that happen. We all have our own stuff. Like, you remember Jimmy McGriff? (Editor's Note: Jimmy McGriff died in 2008 from complications of multiple sclerosis.) Jimmy still played. It just makes you feel good. Somehow, the music will bring you...will help you so much. If you're feeling bad, or troubled with problems, playing music is the healer.

AAJ: That sounds very similar to what happened with Pat Martino, when he had to relearn all his own records.

DLS: Sure. Sure. That's what happens. It will come, but you've got to have it in your head, know exactly what you're doing, and be patient. You've got to be very patient. And you've got to believe: You can't just say that it's going to come back, you've got to believe that it's going to come back. Be patient and work toward it and it will come back.

Oh, it was rough. I remember, I'd be playing sometimes and all of a sudden my articulation and everything just wouldn't work, right in the middle of a song. But it came back, and I'm very pleased with that.

AAJ: There's a lot of Billy Strayhorn and Jimmy Smith music to choose from-why did you select "Chelsea Bridge" and "Mellow Mood" for your repertoire?

DLS: First, when I hear a tune, I hear it all ready before I play it-I hear the tune as though I was playing it. You hear the song and who's playing it, but I hear me playing it. It tells me how I'll play it already, so I don't have to do anything but sit and start playing it then.

If you recall, there was one tune I did by Horace Silver, "Silver's Serenade." (Sings the melody) It just tells me that. I told Horace I was going to do it, and I did it. So I heard "Chelsea Bridge," said, "This is the way that I want to do it," and it works for me.

Now, Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Mood": I used to play it the other way, slower and everything. But then I said, "I feel this way" and I played it that way and it worked for me. It's almost like that song should have been like that [laughs].



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