Brian Charette: Power From the Air

Brian Charette’s Classic Jazz Organ Provides ‘Power From the Air’

Brian Charette combines jazz organ combo swing, rock grooves, and an impressionistic woodwind quartet mimicking the B3 sound on Power From the Air.

Power from the Air
Brian Charette
13 March 2021

Brian Charette thinks like a jazz organist and like a rock and roll lover, both, so his latest recording for his four-woodwind sextet testifies.

On the one hand, Charette’s latest release, Power from the Air, is a classic jazz organ session, with Charette’s Hammond B3 swelling, shimmering, and providing the bass lines as it grooves with drummer Brian Fishler, saxophone solos riding on top. The grooves are powerful and swinging—you can tell that Charette has never skimped on the Jimmy Smith or Jimmy McGriff listening that Hammond B3 specialists need to have in their blood stream. It’s not just the organ prowess (and Charette has plenty of that), but it is the dedication to organ bands as hard charging jazz bands with a greasy sense of pop and shuffle in their style. “Fried Birds” opens the recording just like that: an uptempo blues that flies because Charette’s feet and Fishler’s snare and ride and like identical twins spurring each other on at every step.

On the other hand, this recording is chock full of groove and has a riveting way of making simplicity complex and vice versa. “Frenzy”, for example, works a socking, fast backbeat across a modal, three-chord structure. It hits hard beneath the briefest of fanfare theme statements and then just lets the soloists fly. But in this relative simplicity, the band finds endless variety. The accompaniment to Itai Kriss’s flute solo is spare, with drums and limited organ providing the lift before the horns enter to create transition. Kenny Brooks’s tenor solo, however, rides over a Latin-flavored hurdy-gurdy pattern. When it’s Charette’s turn, he trades statements with the full band, veering far off the harmonic path during his short, weird, wonderful melodic improvised lines.

Often the powerful rhythmic interplay is created by Charette’s integration of different odd time patterns. “Elephant Memory” locks your brain into loving a circular-sounding 9/8 groove before it bursts into spritely-fast swing. “Silver Lining” sets up a similar—and even more infectious—11/8 pattern played as 4-3-4, and the whole enterprise twists and funks and jabbers on this feeling. Fishler accents every twist of the groove on his snare, creating a sense of Crescent City syncopation as well as keeping the listener’s ear in line. “Want” sounds more clocklike in its opening section, with a slow 7/4 pattern churning beneath the horns, but then becoming a more funky double-timed 7/4 in its second section. And here, as all across Power from the Air, the band lets these grooves play out and then get braided around by the four horns.

At the end of the performance, the sextet is collectively improvising but maintaining the slower groove, and the polyrhythmic complexity and fun makes you forget that Charette’s arrangements are fairly wild things: with interlocking melodic lines, contrary motion between the organ and the horns, and imaginative harmonic clusters that intrigue both because of their shaded dissonances and their fascinating sonorities.

It seems central to this sextet that Charette has constructed a four-voice reed section that is capable of mimicking the very sound of the Hammond B3 organ itself. Unlike some jazz organists, Charette manipulates the “stops” of his instrument to get a wide range of colors: whistling highs, brassy mid-highs that come with a clicks and buzz, creamy low tones that sound woody and lush, all manner of vibrations created by the changing speeds of the rotating horns of a Leslie speaker cabinet. The band is able to match the organ’s range of tones using artful arrangements for flute up high, alto saxophone in the high-mid, and then the wonderful combination of tenor sax and bass clarinet in the mid-bottoms: all woodwinds but each with a distinctive set of possible tones and colors.

You can hear this well on the title track. “Power from the Air”—another track driven by a pocket-conscious backbeat and a relatively straight-ahead harmonic roadmap—also features a rich combination of the keyboard and the horns, together. At first, the horn play a jabbering melody in four-part harmony as Charette vibrates beneath them. Then, as he plays the second theme, you hear the horns voice what sound like a series of big Hammond chords. The two different assemblages of tones are twins of each other, of course. The band is Charette’s other B3 “voice” or, of course, chorus of voices. If Ellington’s band was his piano in orchestral form, then this sextet does that job for Charette.

It’s only natural, then, that we find an old big band composition on the program. Charette’s take on “Harlem Nocturne”, from the Ray Noble Orchestra, highlights the B3 as the melody instrument while Fishler plays a 12/8 soul groove. The horns play the bridge, and the arrangement replaces the famously prancing stop-time part with a drunken bit of free playing from the horns. When Charette takes his easy-going solo, those horns are at their most organ-like, humming in windy vibrato, subtle but ready to rise up quickly, just as if they had a volume pedal like the leader does.

Charette also has a hip arrangement of the classic “Cherokee” on hand. The mid-tempo swing is present, as you might expect, but his horn arrangement is almost otherworldly, with the melody intact but a set of voicings that emphasize the most arch and modern elements of jazz harmony. It might seem like too much if the tune didn’t go on to be—as suits pretty much any version of “Cherokee”—a glorious blowing session for all the soloists, who romp and roll. The soloists are excellent throughout Power from the Air. Charette himself is devilishly good at balancing the classic blues-based language of Smith/McGriff organ jazz with a more modern language that borrows occasionally from fusion or from more modern new century playing.

Karel Ruzička’s bass clarinet is also fresh and fascinating. On “Cherokee”, he comes out of the gate in a mellow low register that sounds like a fluid synthesizer (or, if you prefer, like Charette’s organ in a certain tone). But he also can add rasp, shout, and fluid bebop phrasing. Kriss’s flute is arresting in a similar way: highly fluid in phrasing, plush of tone, but also varied enough to sound full of feeling. Those still laughing at the “jazz flute” jokes from Anchorman might think it’s corny when Kriss throws in a quote from Peter and the Wolf during his “Cherokee” solo, but that’s unfair. The cat is fluid and hip enough to pull it off.

This year is arguably a good time for a revival of interest in the Hammond B3 organ, that classic beast. There is hardly a jazz pianist under 50 who doesn’t consider the Fender Rhodes or Wurlitzer electric piano a useful part of their arsenal these days. But players under 50 who really know the organ are rarer. (Charette, fair enough, barely makes that cut-off at 48.) Yet there is at least a small revival going on: Dr. Lonnie Smith has a new album out, Joey DeFrancesco is more prominent than ever, John Medeski remains a pace-setter, and Gary Versace seems to be lurking around every corner, adding delights to so many dates. Charette belongs in this company. On the recorded evidence, he is more traditional or mainstream than an organ specialist such as Cory Henry, whose realm isn’t really “jazz”, but he also has more range than someone who is just reviving an old “organ combo” sound.

Power from the Air puts an interesting stake in the ground. It cooks like a classic B3 session, but it also expands its groove into a more rocking, rhythm-oriented direction. And it uses a set of colors that are almost singular in this idiosyncratic wind quartet that impressionistically mimics the organ’s own tones. Charette’s output may not be overtly “progressive” in a era filled with compositionally tricky New Jazz and a million hip-hop tinged versions of the new fusion, but it issomething new and distinct. And because it is so explicitly about finding a new way to put the organ sound front and center, I’ll be listening carefully.

RATING 7 / 10