Joey DeFrancesco has always seemed like a very ambitious pretender to Jimmy Smith’s throne, and that bothers some of the members of the Hammond B-3 Jazz Organ Cult. It used to bother me too, for about two minutes, until one of our local jazz DJs (a card-carrying member of the Cult) spun one of DeFrancesco’s solos, at which point I figured, “Okay, he’s pretty damned good, but he’s still no Jimmy Smith.”
It’s inconceivable to think of anyone topping Jimmy Smith. He was the Babe Ruth of the B-3, the first true great, the one who showed the world how to make that instrument cook in a jazz context. Not enough wonderful things could ever be said about Smith, who passed away last month at the age of 79; I’m not going to try here, except to say that the man was a titan, and you cannot call yourself a true enthusiast of American music without having a favorite Jimmy Smith album. (Mine is The Sermon.)
Of course, Babe Ruth had his Hank Aaron, and many people in the Hammond B-3 Jazz Organ Cult have just been afraid that Joey D will somehow eclipse Jimmy’s legacy. Hence, Legacy, an album recorded last summer in Tempe, Arizona, featuring DeFrancesco and his band jamming with Smith on a whole bunch of songs. It is a truly great album, but not because of the whole handing-the-torch thing, or the oh-damn-Jimmy’s-dead thing, or even the what-if-Aaron-and-Ruth-had-both-played-in-the-same-game thing. These are all just sideshow press-release liner-note frippery.
No, the real reason this is a great record is that it cooks like a flaming barn full of hot dogs. Both of them came into this date ready to rock, and that’s just what they do. They’re not trying to “cut” each other with their solos or anything, at least not in a rivalry way. They’re just both very confident in their abilities, and they are having fun; a lot of tracks end with the whole studio collapsing into laughter.
It’s Joey D’s band, with Byron Landham on drums and Paul Bollenbeck on guitar, but it’s supplemented by lots of great special guests, including a still-amazing James Moody on tenor for “Jones’n for Elvin”. They do five Smith songs, two DeFrancesco songs, and a whole lot of covers ranging from Jobim’s “Corcovado” to “I’ve Got My Mojo Working”, on which Smith takes a grimy blues vocal to go with the hardcore funk beat.
Listening to these two work is like a master class in jazz. DeFrancesco is happy to play piano on a few cuts, so as to let the master keep the Hammond to himself, but usually it’s both of them playing together. Sometimes, things get complicated, like when they turn Smith’s classic “Back at the Chicken Shack” into a Latin jam with congas and timbales; but they’re not afraid to get minimal on “Blues for Bobby C.”, with just the two of them and drummer Ramon Banda, both of them getting way down deep into the soul-jazz pocket for six minutes. DeFrancesco is more succinct, perhaps brutally efficient at times, and Smith’s solos are more likely to sound out-there and freaky, but both of them sound like they appreciate this chance to work together. You KNOW the Babe would have loved playing with Hank.
At the end of the title track, a sitar-flavored burner with DeFrancesco on piano, Smith yells out, “Killer! Killer!” and DeFrancesco says “Good”, like he’s relieved that he’s gotten the master’s approval. So yeah, the torch has been passed. Now it’s up to DeFrancesco to prove that he can do something with the legacy he has been passed. A lot of people will be listening… and not just members of the Hammond B-3 Jazz Organ Cult.