Saxophonist Craig Handy has a killer new band that combines the jazz-funk of Jimmy Smith with a New Orleans second line groove.
The band is gloriously loud and rocking — the sousaphone is bumping out a bass line that locks in tight with the drummer’s second-line backbeat. Stinging Stratocaster chords and a thick layer of B3 organ are ladled on. Craig Handy, whose tenor sax was mainstay of Jazz Messengers back in the ‘80s, is out front, cool as can be, just letting it all float his sound up and over the crowd in this small basement club.
“Put one foot in front of the other,” he sings in chanted blues lick, as the band plays snippets of stuff from “A Night in Tunisia” along with the Eddie Harris tune “Freedom Jazz Dance”.
Swinging the Positive
“I like to say this about being a jazz musician,” Handy half-jokes on the phone the day before this show, “it’s a great way to almost make a living. But somehow it always works out.”
Handy is ebullient. He is unflappably positive about the music that he loves. And the music he is making right now exudes that upbeat feeling. His “Second Line Smith” band combines the B3-driven soul of Jimmy Smith’s legacy with the bumping funk of New Orleans rhythm and blues. It’s a joyous shout.
“There’s something about this music that keeps everyone who loves it going. ‘You take care of the music and it will take care of you,’ Billy Hart told me one time. I think our ancestors are looking out for us. I’m convinced as I look around and see people who came through this music—the only reason they’re still with us is because of their involvement with the music. It keeps you young. It keeps you happy as long as you can do it. There’s a youthful energy to playing music that is a life-giving force. There is a power that can heal. I’ve never seen anyone come to a concert, stand next to a drummer and not be moved. You have to experience it close-up.”
Back in the Bohemian Caverns in DC, the age-old basement jazz club that spawned the funky classic recording by the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Handy’s band shifts without stopping the groove into Stanley Turrentine’s “Minor Chant”, a funky thing with a delicious release that gives your ears some sugar. Guitarist Matt Chertkoff sounds like a super-charged Grant Green, and Handy picks up a tambourine while Chertkoff solos to flavor things with a little more danceable sock. The climax is the organ solo by Kyle Koeler: all build and surge and rising to the melody again.
“Organ Grinder’s Swing” is fueled by an insistent New Orleans funk from the tuba of Clark Gayton. Handy switches to alto to get that high cry and frankly, it brings the audience to some kind of joyful tears. Koehler’s organ is jetfuel again, and the drummer Jerome Jennings gets some on this tune, rat-a-tatting something danceable and easy to love.
A Life for Jazz
“I was exposed to jazz when I was in the womb. I was singing Miles Davis solos when I was just born.”
Handy is from Oakland, California. He heard tons of jazz as a young man at Keystone Korner, “That’s where I saw Jimmy Smith when I was young. “I saw him play with Kenny Clarke, Eddie Harris. What he could do on the organ would entertain you for the rest of your life. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”
Handy got hooked by the saxophone when he heard Dexter Gordon coming across the airwaves, and then Berkeley High School led him to North Texas State via the Charlie Parker scholarship. In no time at all, Handy was in New York, making a strong impression as a sideman with the very best: the Messengers, Betty Carter’s band, Mingus Dynasty, even playing on The Cosby Show at its height.
Handy made some superb records as a leader in the early ‘90s, but there’s only so much room in jazz for real superstars. Despite a role starring as Coleman Hawkins in the Robert Altman film Kansas City in 1994, Handy’s profile as a leader largely vanished about 20 years ago.
But he kept playing, that’s for sure, and 2014 finds him leading this new band on the revived Okeh record label. And the joy can’t be contained.
Playing Music Across Borders
Second Line Smith, of course, combines the jazz-funk styles and tunes of Jimmy Smith with the grooving feeling of New Orleans music. Handy explains that, “while I didn’t come up through any organ bands, I did get to play with Lonnie Smith and got a dose of it. I didn’t get enough of it, so I wanted to get more of it now.”
But why combine Smith’s funky thing with New Orleans music, a different kind of funk?
“I was looking at the songs I was thinking about doing for the new record — and some were really big hits. ‘High Heel Sneakers’, for example. But they were hits because of the drum patterns on the records—and those patterns, in fact, were modified second-line rhythms.”
So, when Handy plays these tunes in the Caverns, the connection can’t be denied. “I’ll Close My Eyes” is barely recognizable because of the second-line groove until Koehler outlines the melody in the midrange of his B3. You can hear Dinah Washington in the background of your memory. Handy’s solo has incredible soul intensity that suddenly fuses in a dropbeat into the band’s uptempo “High Heeled Sneakers” — tuba thumping it and bringing home the Smith connection.
“The New Orleans rhythms are people music. If you’re not responding to that groove, then you need to go to the ER and check yourself in. All the rhythms can be traced back to Africa in some form or fashion — so they are all related. I heard the connection in ‘The Cat’ and ‘High Heeled Sneakers’.
“Smith’s style came from a number of different sources, including the black church. This figured prominently in his musical DNA,” Handy explains. “If you take the next step, you get the American blues form from gospel. So, it’s folk music. It’s a feeling and an existing form that’s fairly old, that goes back to slave times. And it’s something that’s part of the history of the music and the people. You aren’t selling out if you play what reflects where you came from. Everybody has some folk music that you’re dealing with.”
On the recording, this music is also superb. Handy has three great drummers on different tracks: Herlin Riley (“in direct line of descent from Idris Muhammad. and James Black — those guys were the inventors of funk back in the late ‘50s and ‘60s), Ali Jackson (“he spent with the last 20-odd years playing with Wynton Marsalis, and he absorbed an enormous amount”), and Wynton younger brother Jason Marsalis. Additionally, there is a delicious guest vocal from Dee Dee Bridgewater (“On the Sunny Side of the Street”) and some funky trumpet on the groove classic “Mojo Working” from Wynton himself.
Does Handy, whose jazz fate has been steady but not meteoric, ever get cynical about the commercial side of the jazz industry? Not really. He just loves it all.
“We’ve been conditioned to think that Lady Gaga or a young pop phenom offers something intrinsically valuable. And that’s alright. But there’s all this stuff handed down from generation to generation in jazz. Not stuff gained in a classroom, but stuff that you learn on a bandstand, that you learn from living. People will always feel the value of a true art form. It’s the human connection.”
Jazz may not be all that popular in these times, but that night in the Bohemian Caverns, Handy had the room packed and bumping. “There’s room to grow more of an audience, but we have to change the model. And I think it’s changing—there are programs that are around now that weren’t around when I was young. The Monk Institute, the Kennedy Center, the jazz camps, the universities reaching out to professionals to teach even on the road.”
And listening to this music, the life of it, the joy of it, you believe Handy. You imagine Second Line Smith as dance music, party music, music for young people.
“In general, I think that the farming of young minds, cultivating them—it’s probably on the upswing.”