Dr. Lonnie Smith, Marva Whitney, Billy Prince, Marc Ribot & Steven Bernstein

Martin Longley By

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Dr. Lonnie Smith Big Band
Jazz Standard
December 30, 2010

The holiday season allowed organist Dr. Lonnie Smith the luxury of surrounding himself with big band ranks. The virtual guarantee of sold-out sets created a situation where the Hammond B-3 man was able to make the change from his customary small combo settings. Indeed, the week had opened with Smith's regular trio playing for two nights, but the third evening of the week's residency offered the first stateside chance to hear the big band, an assemblage that would return for another two nights.

From the start it was apparent that the turbaned Smith's talents were certainly not going to be subsumed by horn-blasting arrangements. He was very much swirling at the core, delivering a regular sequence of highly expressive solos.

It was not only the leader's organ-clipping that was expressive. Smith's beard-wisped visage was constantly open, reflecting each lightly percussive ripple, each rumbling run. He masters the complete range of expression, from dainty trickles to urgent crescendos. It's not clear whether the organ was speaking his mind, or whether Smith's lips were voicing the organ notes. Which came first?

At first, the horn sections were mostly coloring his actions, providing a crisp canopy for Smith's warmly organic surges. Before too long, the audience's attention was allowed to fall on the rest of this expansive territory. Trombonist and musical director Corey King was similarly readable as he prompted the battalion with its mobilization cues. Even though this was the opening set, the band was already tight, but there was always a flexibility where King could allow a solo to attain its natural climax before spurring the next thematic blast. There was a particularly sharp dialogue between King and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, who happens to also be a member of the foundation Smith trio. Kreisberg seemed to be the link between the rhythm section and the horns.

The opening pair of originals from Smith's album Spiral (Palmetto, 2010) couldn't have made a stronger statement. The title tune was closer to the soul-jazz groove that might be expected when the organist's palette increased from trio to big band. It was made particularly transcendent by an eloquent (and beautifully extended) alto saxophone solo courtesy of Logan Richardson. Phrasing sensitivity found new borders.

When "Beehive" began to take off, it doubtless took some audience members by surprise. Moving from the 1960s to the freakier end of the 1970s, this tune could almost be ripping pages out of the Frank Zappa songbook, led by a clanging, effects-crunched Kreisberg guitar riff. Almost not-guitar, disembodied into sheer alloy-distress. Such excessive complexity may well have been a touch too much for the following night's New Year's Eve party scene (if the band elected to play the tune again), but it was thrilling to witness Smith charging out into more of an extremist zone than usual. He was visibly reveling in the behemoth buzz-rush. In a completely contrasting mood, the following "Chelsea Bridge" was the ultimate in emotive levitation, carried aloft by a breathtaking solo tenor saxophone narrative from John Ellis.

With Smith himself issuing deep clumps of lowness, this is already an ensemble possessing an abundance of bass weight. Besides the upright-thrumming of bassist Vicente Archer, the horns were boasting Clark Gayton's sousaphone, highlighted by a featured solo spell so light-lipped and agile that we could clearly visualize his almost dainty hippo-waddle right down a reveling New Orleans thoroughfare. Special mention should also be made of the whip cracking-ly sharp sticksman Jamire Williams, the third regular member of Smith's core trio. His taut funk rubberisms drove the big band hard and loose, cracked and cool. Right at the close of 2010, this was amongst the year's mightiest gigs.

Marva Whitney/Billy Prince/The Sweet Divines
The Bell House
December 31, 2010

This is the second New Year's Eve that I've spent at The Bell House, lapping up a soul revue by the Dig Deeper retro-activist collective. It's been a sage decision on both occasions. Even though the show was sold out, there wasn't any uncomfortable claustrophobia or mindless ignoring of the music. The crowd were completely in thrall to the performances, and the dance floor was becoming an actual dance floor, as the night's three sets steadily escalated their stepping power.


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