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Joey DeFrancesco at Chris’ Jazz Café

Victor L. Schermer By

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Joey DeFrancesco Trio & Quartet
Chris' Jazz Café
Philadelphia, PA
November 30, 2019

In the 1970s, before he became a famed performer, Joey DeFrancesco was already at the prodigious age of 10 (!) playing gigs with the likes of Philly Joe Jones, Shirley Scott, and Hank Mobley at local jazz clubs in Philadelphia. Fast forward a few decades, and there comes a rare chance to hear the now international icon in a similar environment in the city of his origins. Chris' place didn't exist then, but today it is the center of the jazz scene in the downtown area. For DeFrancesco, Chris' would be a kind of an outlier, since he has over the years spread his wings to concert stages and iconic clubs around the world. Only he can say what led him to come home in this way, but the standing-room-only sold out house didn't care about that. They just wanted to be in the hero's presence and hear him play as only he can.

Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, part of the informal ambience of local jazz clubs are the screw-ups! In this case we found DeFrancesco sitting down at the organ and suddenly realizing his personal cellphone was missing. (Fortunately, it was quickly retrieved for him.) And after that, the volume of the floor monitor speaker pointing in his direction was set too low, so he couldn't hear himself play! As that problem was being resolved, he had to get his cohorts, pickup musicians rather than his regular trio, in synch with him. The history of jazz is peppered with chaotic moments like this. Things quickly picked up, and the excitement in the air took over until the group established a groove and delivered a merit-worthy set reflecting DeFrancesco's knockout mastery of everything humanly possible on his instrument!

The sidemen on the gig soon pulled together marvelously to provide just what DeFrancesco required: a solid pulse and a lively, intense interchange that mirrored the organist's complex development of varied styles and approaches, particularly the "soul jazz" emphasis and the influence of DeFrancesco's forebear,Jimmy Smith, who was also a Philadelphia native. Victor North, the versatile saxophonist who has worked in the past with DeFrancesco, was a perfect sidekick. Bassist Mike Boone, virtually a Philadelphia institution, came in on several of the tunes with the panache of a player who can find the perfect groove for any musical approach. And a drummer I never encountered, Mike O'Day, provided the rhythmical punch and power that DeFrancesco required to let the phrases fly. (And indeed they really flew from his hands like magic spirits of sound. Instead of the usual Hammond B-3 organ, he got a remarkably clear and resilient touch from a Nord Stage 2 88-Key Stage Keyboard and additional equipment by Viscount, but the large wooden cabinet behind him probably housed the Hammond B-3 innards.)

The set began with three numbers from DeFrancesco's most recent album, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue, 2019). "Vibrations in Blue" had North on baritone sax co-stating the melody with DeFrancesco and picking up on the latter's solo with some riffs of his own with a bit of a Pepper Adams feel. "It Swung Wide Open" moved heavily into soul jazz (think Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff -still another great Philadelphis organist) with great trading of fours and twos between DeFrancesco and North. For the album's title tune, "In the Key of the Universe," North played tenor sax, and it was obvious that he enjoyed this encounter with the great organist and picked up on his virtuosic improvising, which was quite a feat in itself.

Bassist Boone joined the ensemble for a pretty ballad, "Don't Take Your Love From Me." DeFrancesco, who since his days with Miles Davis, has been playing trumpet and subsequently tenor saxophone, played the latter, with a strong Cannonball Adderley influence and a classy cadenza at the end. The pace picked up again with a DeFrancesco original with a Latin beat, "Soul Perrspective." North delivered a superb soprano saxophone solo with a beautiful, almost flute-like tone. DeFrancesco came in on muted and then unmated trumpet, after which trumpet and soprano saxophone played contrapuntally against one another in an irresistible way.

DeFrancisco's funky composition "Scottish Aboriginal Dance" evoked bagpipes via the organ, as well as North's baritone and DeFrancesco's tenor saxphone. O'Day picked up on the theme with a marching band drum solo, and, after all that craziness, the group then broke out into a solid swing tempo. On this piece, DeFranciso's sax solo echoed early John Coltrane. Each sideman took an extended solo, and the exotic and eclectic rendition rounded off with the unaccompanied saxophones trading fours.

The set concluded with an encore with a seasonal implication: "Home for the Holidays" (DeFrancesco'a title tune (not the traditional one with a similar name) from his album of the same name (JD Music, 2014) ). With North rocking on tenor saxophone, and DeFrancesco going all out on the organ, the group might as well have been in Harlem in the 1970s with Willis "Gator" Jackson's soul jazz atmospherics written all over it.

Set List: (All DeFrancesco originals except where noted): Vibrations in Blue; It Swung Wide Open; In the Key of the Universe; Don't Take Your Love From Me (H. Nemo); Soul Perspective; Scottish Aboriginal Dance; Home for the Holidays.

Personnel: Joey DeFrancesco: Organ; Victor North: saxophones; Mike Boone: bass; Mike O'Day, drums.

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