Dr. Lonnie Smith: Breathe


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Twelve years ago, Ira Gitler introduced me to Lonnie Smith. We were sitting at New York's Jazz Standard listening to the music during the Jazz Journalists Association awards annual gala. As the three of us sat there, I told Lonnie how much I dug his heavy groove albums from the 1960s and '70s—particularly Think! and Turning Point and Drives.

Each time I mentioned an album, Lonnie's eyebrows went up. Other than that, he was fairly quiet and borderline shy. Later, I asked Ira how a guy who stirred up so much trouble on the Hammond B-3 could be so meek on the street. Ira said Lonnie was a mellow soul but when he climbed behind the keyboard, he became a monster. “He leaves it all on the keyboard," Ira said.

The Dr. part of Lonnie's name has nothing to do with MDs or PhD's. Lonnie is said to have adopted the honorific to differentiate himself from organist Lonnie Liston Smith. As for the turban, it gives him a mystical quality, though the authentic Sikh wrap seems to be more of an artistic statement than a mark of conversion. Either way, these are signatures of a creative force eager to stand out in a humble way.

Lonnie's current album, Breathe (Blue Note), features rocker Iggy Pop singing on two tracks, the first and last. Pop has much in common with Lonnie in terms of his stage-street persona. What's special about the new release is the diversity of grooves and the shifting moods throughout. The beauty of jazz legends like Lonnie is that they remain true to their original sound but constantly work to push their thing forward to the next level.

The Pop studio bookends are Why Can't We Live Together, a hit for Timmy Thomas in 1973, and Donovan's Sunshine Superman. On these tracks, Lonnie and Pop are backed by guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, drummer Johnathan Blake and percussionist Richard Bravo. The remaining tracks in the middle are Lonnie's originals Bright Eyes, Too Damn Hot, Track 9, World Weeps and Pilgrimage. Also in the center is Thelonious Monk's Epistrophy. These were recorded live at at the Jazz Standard in 2017 in celebration of Lonnie's 75th birthday. Added on the live tracks are tenor saxophonist John Ellis, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, trumpeter Sean Jones and trombonist Robin Eubanks.

The album is a funky knockout. The originals are tasty organ adventures with perfectly arranged horns, resulting in a neat 1970s jazz sound. Pop's vocals on the covers are eerie but in sync with Lonnie's cooking. And  each song is a different scene, working neatly to retain your interest.

Ira would be pleased to know that Lonnie still leaves it all on the keyboard.

JazzWax tracks: Here's Bright Eyes...

And here's Too Damn Hot...

And if you want to know what makes Lonnie tick, if you really want to hear him turn a song you know into a knockout cooker, dig Who Can I turn To from Lenox and Seventh in Paris in 1985, with guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Alvin Queen here...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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