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Dr. Lonnie Smith: Evolution

Dan Bilawsky By

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Artist repatriation seems to be something of a theme in the Don Was era of Blue Note Records. In 2013 there was the return of saxophonist Wayne Shorter, a jazz giant who delivered many of his landmark '60s albums on this storied imprint. Then, in 2015, Charles Lloyd left ECM for Blue Note, a label that had previously held one Lloyd album in its portfolio. Now, as 2016 arrives, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith returns to the fold.

Evolution is Smith's first album for Blue Note in forty-five years, and it's a real humdinger. Everything we've come to expect from him, included the unexpected, is here. The album is populated with raunchy riffs, greasy grooves, soulful sermons, tidal organ shifts, moody statements, hard-hitting solos, and punchy interjections, all of which help to enliven throwback songs, standards, and new pieces alike. This is past, present, and future Smith rolled into one.

The album kicks off with "Play It Back," a funky number from Smith's Live At Club Mozambique (Blue Note, recorded 1970/released 1995). Double drumming from the likes of Johnathan Blake and Joe Dyson underscores the music, setting a foundation for soloist after soloist to build upon; Robert Glasper, making his lone guest appearance on the album, hits it out of the park when he steps to the plate; the horns sound hot, whether riffing together or taking to the spotlight as individuals; and the good doctor does what he does best. Smith follows that up by inviting Joe Lovano into the picture to reprise his role on "Afrodesia." Lovano originally recorded the song with Smith some forty years ago, working his magic with his tenor. Here he turns to his G mezzo soprano saxophone, delivering the goods on this grounded groove number. Then, for good measure, Lovano brings out his main ax on "For Heaven's Sake," a balladic mood painting that stands as gentle contrast to the majority of the material on the playlist.

The remaining four tracks are split evenly between new originals and standards. That first category includes "Talk About This," a funky number with a hard-hitting solo from trumpeter Maurice Brown, and "African Suite," which stands apart thanks to John Ellis' flute work and some Afrocentric accents and underpinnings. The standards—"Straight No Chaser" and "My Favorite Things," both delivered by the trio of Smith, Blake, and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg—prove to be fiery and forward-thinking. The former is a take-no-prisoners performance that's set aflame by the spark of life. And the latter? It's a piece that's full of surprises. It emerges from uncertainty, departs into the shadows, and emits power and potency from its core. It takes tremendous creativity to pull a rabbit out of the hat on such a well worn piece, and this trio has that and then some.

Dr. Lonnie Smith left Blue Note as a young man, but he returns as a sagacious elder. The wisdom he's gained in the intervening years is parceled out in his every gesture, flourish, and note. Evolution is but a single album, yet it speaks to a lifetime of music making from one of our most treasured organists.

Track Listing: Play It Back' Afrodesia; For Heaven's Sake; Straight No Chaser; Talk About This; My Favorite Things; African Suite.

Personnel: Dr. Lonnie Smith: Hammond B-3 organ, keyboards (6, 7); Robert Glasper: piano (1); Joe Lovano: G mezzo soprano saxophone (2), tenor saxophone (3); Johnathan Blake: drums; Joe Dyson: drums (1-3, 5, 7); Jonathan Kreisberg: guitar; Keyon Harrold: trumpet (1); Maurice Brown: trumpet (2, 3, 5); John Ellis: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 5), bass clarinet: (3), flute (7);

Title: Evolution | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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