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Joey DeFrancesco: From Musical Prodigy to Jazz Icon


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Joey DeFrancesco is a true master of the jazz organ, the one others look up to as the standard bearer, as was his inspirational hero, Jimmy Smith. Arguably, he could be dubbed the Mozart of the jazz organ, since like Mozart, he seemed to have been born with all the music already in him. By four, again like Mozart, he was studying with his father. His dad, organist Papa John DeFrancesco took Joey with him on gigs around Philadelphia. At ten, believe it or not, he joined the jazz scene there, working with mature top-of-the-line musicians like Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley! At sixteen, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records. Many jazz musicians develop at a young age, but rarely as early as this kid from Springfield, PA. By eighteen, he was touring with Miles Davis.

Now many years later, Joey DeFrancesco is in demand for performances everywhere and has logged about 40 albums as a leader, not to mention a host of duties as a sideman. His most recent recording, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue, 2019) and his gig with Terell Stafford's Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center provided the occasions for this interview.

All About Jazz: I always start with the infamous desert island question: What records would you bring?

.Joey DeFrancesco: That's a hard question to answer. Probably A Love Supreme (Impulse! 1965) and Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959). I'd take some Ray Charles because he covered everything. I love the one he did with Quincy Jones, Genius + Soul = Jazz (Impulse! 1961). That's a great one: he plays organ on it. Or—I could sneak around this question and just take my IPod to the desert island, so I could listen to whatever I wanted to. (LOL!!)

Genius + Organ = Joey

AAJ: Tell us a little about your earliest musical influences and coming up in a musical family in the 1970s.

.JDF: Well, there's the stuff everybody knows. I grew up in Springfield, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia. My father played organ, and I started playing when I was four years old. By the time I was ten, I was already gigging in Philly and the burbs. As a kid, I sat in with my dad at various places. Not really jazz clubs, but at restaurants, Italian clubs, and so on, where his trio would play, sometimes for month or years on a regular basis. Then when I was ten, I started playing my own gigs at jazz clubs like Jewel's and Gert's and Carter's, I'm sure you know those. I had my own bands. Then when I was sixteen, I signed with Columbia Records.

AAJ: Before we get to that, what musicians did you play with in Philly during that early period?

.JDF: I worked with Philly Joe Jones, Shirley Scott, Hank Mobley, Mickey Roker, Bootsie Barnes, Jimmy Oliver, and a bunch of others.

AAJ: You were in your early teens, and working with the top of the heap! A propos of that, how did you get to meet Jimmy Smith as your guru for jazz organ?

.JDF: I first met him in New York, when my parents took me there to see him play.

AAJ: Did you have a personal relationship with him? How did you learn from him?

.JDF: I learned from him and others from listening. They were all teachers in that respect. My father was my only formal teacher as such. Later on, I went to the Settlement Music School to study classical piano. But I basically picked up music just from listening. I had a really good ear.

AAJ: Did listening to Jimmy Smith change your way of approaching the music?

.JDF: Even as a little kid, I listened to his records, and he blew my mind! I loved it. And I was lucky enough that I had the instrument to play, and just started working on it.

AAJ: Who were some of the other organists that influenced you in the early days?

.JDF: Well, I was influenced by everyone, not just organ players. But if you're just talking organ players, it would be the obvious ones: Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Jack McDuff, Trudy Pitts, and Don Patterson. Those were the main cats that I listened to in their early development. And I still enjoy listening to them now.

AAJ: A number of them worked with guitarist Pat Martino and had a big impact on him and vice-versa.

.JDF: Pat Martino worked with McDuff and Patterson.

AAJ: So which other non-organ musicians had a big impact on you?

.JDF: Of course, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson. The usual suspects! (LOL!!)

AAJ: Bebop, hard bop, cool jazz great ones! But you also must have been influenced by what's been called "soul jazz."

.JDF: Well you know, I always have loved Ray Charles, "Fats" Domino, 1950's R&B like Little Richard, those were the things that got me rollin,' and then you just progress from there. But you know, all of that comes from the blues, and one of the things is that the organ has an R&B sound to it even if you're playing bop or whatever, so it's natural that it would come into play.

AAJ: That's a good point. The distinction between bop and soul isn't so sharp. Hard bop itself was infused with R&B and soul.

.JDF: Absolutely!

AAJ: So you came of age in Philadelphia, and then what happened?

.JDF: When I was around sixteen, I had a major breakthrough when I signed with Columbia Records. I sent a demo to them, and they really dug it. George Butler was their A&R VP at the time, the same gentleman who signed Wynton Marsalis. Columbia was one of the catalysts that brought jazz back into the forefront in the early 1980s. Butler signed a lot of younger musicians to spark the interest of younger listeners. So my first record, All of Me (Columbia) was released in 1989.

AAJ: It's rare to hear that a jazz musician's first record label is Columbia.

.JDF: Well, there weren't as many independent labels at that time. But for an organist, it was really special. Butler heard me and felt that the organ had a great future in jazz.

Miles Davis and Beyond

AAJ: So then, things really got going for you.

.JDF: Yeah, shortly after that, I joined the Miles Davis band. I played with Miles for about six months, and while I was doing it, the record company, Columbia, pressured me to focus on my solo career. My first record was just getting ready for release.

AAJ: Who was in Miles' band with you?

.JDF: Kenny Garrett was playing alto saxophone; Ricky Wellman was on drums; Adam Holzman was the second keyboard player; the bassist was Benny Rietvelds—he plays with Santana now—and the percussionist was Marilyn Mazur. [See album, Miles Davis: Live around the World, Warner Brothers, 1996— Eds.]

AAJ: So you toured Europe with Miles.

.JDF: We did a few gigs in the U.S. too. But that was my first trip to Europe, and it was very memorable.

AAJ: Miles went through many changes in approach over the years.

.JDF: Yes, but you can always tell it's him, his signature. He changed his surroundings, his ensembles. Essentially that's how you evolve as a musician.

AAJ: Miles was a genius in forming new bands. And his auditions were sometimes brilliantly conceived. He auditioned Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams at his home, telling them to practice, and then he went upstairs and listened to them through his sound system without them knowing—so they wouldn't be intimidated by him. How did he audition you?

.JDF: He was on a TV show where I was in the house band. He heard me play, and he just invited me to join his band! [A remarkable YouTube video, The Bill Boggs talk show in Philadelphia has Joey on keyboards with a young Christian McBride on bass, and Stacey Dozier on drums. Among others, a youthful John Swana plays a trumpet solo. At 32:30 on the YouTube video, Miles, a special guest, casually ask Boggs, "Who is the organist?" -Eds.]

AAJ: You are so strong, and your signature is right out there, so it's hard to imagine how a trumpet player like Miles could match his style with yours.

.JDF: Well, we're talking about Miles Davis, so whatever he does is huge! He had that vibe that he could play one note and it would be great. And most of the music we played was from the record Tutu (Warner Brothers, 1986) and another one called You're Under Arrest (Columbia, 1985). But, regardless of what we were playing, I was young, 17, but I had played for quite a while and had an idea of how I wanted to sound. So I just did what I did, in my own "voice," and Miles dug it.

AAJ: And as a result of your stint with Miles, you took up trumpet.

.JDF: Playing with him made me want to play trumpet.

AAJ: Didn't you find it frustrating, after playing the organ, that you couldn't play chords and comp for yourself?

.JDF: No, not really. Anyway, I play a lot of single note lines on the organ. I just loved the sound of the trumpet. And it helps with your breathing even when you play keyboards.

AAJ: Did you listen to trumpet players as you learned the instrument?

.JDF: Well, I had the greatest of them right in front of me. I especially listened to Miles for his sound. But I also love Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, and all of those cats too. Mostly I play my own tunes on trumpet, but once in a while I'll hit one of those guys' tunes.

Bringing it Up to Date

AAJ: What group do you lead right now? Do you travel with your own group or do you pick up musicians from the area?

.JDF: Nearly all the time, I use my own band, unless I'm a guest at a special event. I have a couple of my own trios and a quartet. My main trio is with Troy Roberts on saxophones and Billy Hart on drums. And my other current trio consists of two gentlemen from Philadelphia: Victor North on saxophones and Khary Abdul Shaheed on drums.

AAJ: Victor is a killer saxophonist. At some point in the past, you had another great Philadelphian, Byron Landham, on drums.

.JDF: That was the trio I had for many years: Byron, and Paul Bollenbeck on guitar. We were together for over twenty years. We still get together every once in a while.

AAJ: So speaking of Philly musicians, on June 1 you're doing a concert with Terell Stafford and the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia at the Kimmel Center. What have you put together for that?

.JDF: It's going to be very exciting. In addition to the Hammond organ, I'm going to be playing the Fred J. Cooper pipe organ in Verizon Hall. You can imagine the kinds of sounds you can get from that instrument!

AAJ: Trudy Pitts played that organ some years ago. She did amazing things with it.

.JDF: Yeah, I heard her play it. So I'll do both instruments on my own and with the JOP big band.

AAJ: Whose big band arrangements will be used?

In the Key of the Universe

.JDF: I'll bring some, and Terell has a few. We'll do some standards and a couple of originals. And I just had a new album come out in March, In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue, 2019), and I'll do a couple of things from it.

AAJ: That album includes the great Pharoah Sanders on saxophone. Had you worked with him before?

.JDF: The only time I played with Pharoah before this recent recording was when I was playing in clubs in Vienna, Austria. He was playing in another club, and Orrin Evans was accompanying him. He brought Pharoah over to hear me, and I guess he really enjoyed it because he sat in on a couple of tunes. And that was the trio I had with Byron Landham and Paul Bollenbeck. So since then, Pharoah and I have been talking informally about doing something together, but it never happened until now. It was really great to make this recording with Pharoah.

AAJ: The album title and Pharoah's presence suggest a spiritual idea. Did you have that in mind when you made the record?

.JDF: This is about the direction I've been going in for the last few years. First of all, music is a spiritual experience to begin with. And as you grow and go on in life, spirituality is going to affect whatever you do. So there's an uncontrollable urge to express it in your music, so other people can get in touch with that feeling too when they listen.

AAJ: That's similar to what John Coltrane said, that the music was his spirituality.

.JDF: Absolutely!

AAJ: And Pharoah was on Coltrane's album, Meditations (Impulse! 1965). That album was truly avant-garde. Many listeners couldn't relate to it. For yourself, a mostly mainstream player, do you dig avant-garde music?

.JDF: I love it. In my recordings, you can hear that I've sometimes ventured off into the avant-garde. But I still like to keep a form and a groove, and for me, I can be "free" on top of that. And that's what Ornette Coleman was doing in his early things: using tunes and following a form. But in his soloing he was very free. I really like that approach. Some of my intros are completely free, with just a cushion, sort of like a meditation. I drone a note in the bass, and just do whatever I feel over that particular chord. I like free expression but also with knowledge, not just pickin' up an instrument and start screechin' on it. The best free players really knew their harmony. like John Gilmore. Ornette himself sounded like Charlie Parker. There's a misconception about free jazz. A lot of people think it's going to be a lot of noise.

AAJ: It's real music, but it is "free" to deviate from the diatonic scale, traditional harmonies, and standard phrasing.

.JDF: Right! That's great!

AAJ: There's a wonderful feeling of freedom of movement in your playing. You seem to go wherever you feel like going, and it always works!

.JDF: Oh, well, thank you very much!

AAJ: But the question is whether you ever play without any key or chords in mind. I don't hear that in your playing, but I'll have to go back and listen to some of the records again.

.JDF: Sometimes when I really get going with a group, it becomes wide open. And then somebody will play something we recognize, and we'll come back home. That'll happen more on a live gig than a record, where there's not enough time to really let loose.

AAJ: You're saying that you can hear well outside the forms, and you can go there when it feels right, but you'll always come back to the center.

Remembering Little Jimmy Scott; and a Couple of Words to Young Musicians

AAJ: To change the subject, I wanted to make sure I asked you about Little Jimmy Scott, to my mind, and others agree, one of the greatest singers in jazz history who only got recognized in his last years. To me, he was one of the most soul-stirring, moving singers who ever walked the face of the earth.

.JDF: Yes, he was incredible. You know I love him. You know about my record with him and Joe Pesci and the film I Go Home Again (DVD: Sine Qua Non Music, Kemper Music Productions, 2016) ; Audio CD: Little River Records, 2017). I first met Jimmy many years ago. He came out to hear me at a gig. During the break, he told me he really liked my music. I felt really honored, because I always appreciated his singing. He reminded me of Dexter Gordon's playing: the way he played way behind the beat, with really relaxed phrasing. His feel is tremendous. So that's how we met, but we never worked together until much later, when we made that record and video. I was only supposed to come in and play one or two tunes, but I wound up playing on a whole bunch of them.

AAJ: That film and DVD was so touching. His singing was so sincere—he meant every word he sang from the heart. And he could take a single note and make it into a little poem. And Joe Pesci got so up close with him. To conclude, what suggestions would you have for up and coming jazz musicians, like those who are graduating from universities and trying to jump start their careers?

.JDF: My main suggestion is to keep at it, because the longer you play, the more you're gonna sound like yourself with your own "voice." That usually doesn't happen overnight. You just have to keep at it. And one of the biggest ways to sound like yourself is to keep listening to everyone else.

AAJ: A true paradox: the more you listen, the more you become yourself.

.JDF: You should get to know the others so well, that you begin to hear how they are different from each other and from you. And then you can play what's not there, what you haven't heard.



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