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!
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
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.