Joey DeFrancesco: Organic Vibes

[4 May 2006]

By Will Layman

Joey DeFrancesco has the Hammond B-3 organ in his blood. His father, a B-3 Beast himself, raised the young man on the pedals, and Joey started playing the great instrument as a kid. By 17 he was recording and now, at 35, he is the reigning master of the jazz organ.

That is a somewhat curious distinction, though. Mr. DeFrancesco is credited with bringing attention back to the B-3 after the passing of its heyday in the 1960s. A huge fan and descendent of guys like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, Mr. DeFrancesco has, indeed, been occupied with simply bringing the jazz spotlight back to a kind of music that was already perfected 40 years ago. So: where is the jazz organ going now?

Organic Vibes is not an explicit answer, but it does not sound stuck in the past. The album title is a reference to special guest Bobby Hutcherson, a living legend of the jazz vibraharp. And while Mr. Hutcherson’s heyday was also the mid-‘60s on Blue Note, he has always been a fresh and modern player.  As a result, Organic Vibes is Mr. DeFrancesco’s freshest and most complex album—a collection of modern jazz that highlights the drama of the B-3, to be sure, but that also demonstrates the graceful interaction of a brilliant jazz group.

Rounding out the group are one or two saxophonists, the brilliant veteran George Coleman and relative youngster Ron Blake, drummer Byron Landham, and guitarist Jake Langley, though the horns and guitar don’t play on every tune. Still, the emphasis is not on blowing (as is, perhaps, too often the case on recordings to designed to “burn,” as the B-3 lingo has it) as much as on group conversation. No matter how often I listen to the opener, Joey’s own “The Tackle”, I always find another little moment where the organ is in direct conversation with Mr. Hutcherson or Mr. Blake. During the B-3 solo, Mr. Landham and Mr. Langley (regular members of the leader’s group) engage in continual banter with their boss. However the horn and vibes part do not feel at all tacked-on; the record achieves a nice “organic” vibe indeed.

It is the subtlety of Organic Vibes that pleases most, as Mr. DeFrancesco is known to be a serious show-boater. His ability to rip is never in doubt here, but more often he is coloring behind a solo or matching an ensemble in tone and instinct. On Mr. Hutcherson’s famous “Little B’s Poem”, a skipping waltz, the arrangement features flute and vibes, with the organ having to wait for its solo to build a head of steam. It does. The other great example of this is the ballad performance of “I Thought About You” for organ, vibes, and drums. Mr. Hutcherson’s solo is relaxation incarnate—all incisive note choice and behind-the-beat rhythm. Mr. DeFrancesco’s solo is virtuoso stuff of the first order, the notes fluttering up and down like a bird’s wings, with the clicking sound of the organ making the solo as percussive as it is melodic. Amidst delicacy, fire.

Mr. Coleman’s turn is on the rarely heard “Somewhere in the Night”.  Playing the melody in a very loose unison with Mr. Hutcherson, this seen-it-all tenor saxophone sound is just right for the band. The record starts to feel like a real late-night session, and Mr. Coleman’s solo gives him the chance to cry in his upper register as well as ruminate down below. It’s a supremely relaxed performance. Mr. Coleman gets to play foil to the other tenor on an up-tempo “Speak Low” (without Mr. Hutcherson). Again, Mr. Coleman tumbles through his solo with natural insouciance, an old-timer showing the kids a thing or two about relaxation even in a swift stream of swing. Not that Mr. Blake is utterly outshined by his elder. The younger man player with a rubbery grace, and his soprano lines on “Colleen” are insinuating without falling into out-of-tune cliché.

But what of the leader’s solo statements? They still burn when they should, but just as often they are fleet and cool or textural and modern. Mr. DeFrancesco plays the organ with a natural ease that makes you, as the listener, sense that maybe you could sit behind the beast and get a good sound too. Of course, you couldn’t do this—moving your feet over the pedals to produced pulsing bass-lines and weaving harmonic puzzles into the harmonies of the tunes. The leader’s last album was a long-awaited series of duets with his greatest influence, Jimmy Smith, and it turned out to be Mr. Smith’s final date. On Organic Vibes, Mr. DeFrancesco is playing Mr. Smith’s 1959 Hammond. And it’s rarely sounded better.

In most of the ways that count, Organic Vibes has the appeal of the terrific Blue Notes of the mid-60’s, though not necessarily Mr. Smith’s work.  Dominated by the work of Bobby Hutcherson, this disc has a modernist edge even as it tackles standards and blues. If you miss that kind of thing, and I think most serious jazz fans do (particularly on an organ disc), then Mr. DeFrancesco has earned a spot in your current playlist.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/joey_defrancesco_organic_vibes/