The first track on the latest recording from Joey DeFrancesco is what you might expect from the organ expert and swinging veteran. “Inner Being” is a graceful, upbeat tune that layers DeFrancesco’s organ colors with both Sammy Figueroa‘s percussion and the organic drumming of veteran Billy Hart. The passages of the composition in which the organ plays in melodic sync with the soprano saxophone of Troy Roberts (the native of Perth, Australia who has made New York his home in recent years) are lovely, launching an engaging set of solos. If the whole album were like this, well, it would be a beautiful slice of what DeFrancesco has been offering listeners for many years: Hammond B3 playing for a new century. Tasty. Lovely.
But In the Key of the Universe offers something more. On three tracks, DeFrancesco features the legendary Pharoah Sanders, the tenor saxophone giant whose work with John Coltrane and solo career from the ’60s through the ’80s made a huge mark on the music. In the last 20 years, Sanders seemed to vanish from the scene, even as some of his original ideas have been revived in various forms, becoming more relevant than ever.
DeFrancesco says that “this is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” ever since Sanders sat in with him on a gig in Vienna in 2004, playing “Body and Soul” and a blues. “He was unbelievable. At that time I was just finishing up a record with Jimmy Smith called Legacy. I thought it would be great to have Pharoah, but scheduling didn’t allow it.”
The result is a recording that brings Sanders’ voice back into circulation in a thrilling way and opens up DeFrancesco’s music to a newer avenues as well.
“My music has naturally been growing in a more spiritual direction over the last decade,” says DeFrancesco. “So this was a natural.”
The thirst to revisit Sanders’s work of the ’70s and ’80s is hardly confined to DeFrancesco. The Epic by Kamasi Washington (Brainfeeder, 2015) is possibly the most talked about jazz recording of the last five years, and it’s unimaginable without Sanders as a role—and sonic — model. DeFrancesco’s take on Sander’s legacy is less transformative, but it brings the leader’s music into a different place while giving Sanders a chance to reintroduce himself.
Sanders appears on three tracks on In the Key of the Universe. DeFrancesco positions them at the center of the order, and they deserve to be its core. Sanders doesn’t outplay Roberts on the saxophone but he brings a gravity to each of these tracks that places them on a different plane. Sanders also brings his famous tune, “The Creator Has a Master Plan” to the album.
“I’ve seen Pharoah many times over the years,” DeFrancesco recalls, “and I have all his records. But when you’re in the studio with him and he puts his horn together … As soon as he plays his first note, it puts you in a zone. He starts explaining how to play ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’—that intro. He comes in just as strong as in 1969, and to hear that in front of you, it’s a spiritual experience.”
The version here is shorter than Sanders’s original, but it still has grandeur. The 1969 version from Karma (Impulse!) is more than 30 minutes long. It’s arrayed with percussion and flute, coming in as a great rumble of life, the tenor saxophone both gruff and tender, the tremolo of piano sounding like drums, the drums sounding like a deep form of melody. The groove of the original has a simplicity, sounding almost childlike, shot through with wonder while still cluttered with a tribal communion.
DeFrancesco doesn’t try to mimic that, exactly, but he has the great Billy Hart on drums with Figueroa adding texture and his own piano filling the space more fully. The tempo is a bit faster, with Sanders entering earlier and the band getting into a pulsing groove that, frankly, out-swings the original. DeFrancesco’s organ becomes a beautiful voice that matches Sanders, both when he plays and when he sings the song’s famous lyric (“The creator has a master plan / Peace and happiness for every man”), a smooth, fluid thing.
The organ, after all, is a church instrument, a spiritual voice even as it’s been associated with the greasy blues. To DeFrancesco, they can be one and the same. “It’s all blues. When you listen to ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’—that’s a total blues line. But it’s a freer concept of that. John Lee Hooker has real spiritual depth too. There’s a misconception that the blues is about struggling, but it’s about everything. It’s a feeling, but it’s not about being ‘blue’.”
There’s a graceful sway of keyboards beneath all of the performance, a set of polyrhythms among the different voices that resemble the various voices in Hart’s drum kit, bouncing, kissing against each other, forming the chain of pulses that are the life of the song. It’s only a third the length of the original but still, at 11-minutes, it stretches out—not with long solos but with several episodes of collective feeling. It grabs you and holds you.
“Musically, you have to get past chord changes and time,” DeFrancesco explains. “I love when you get really open and allow the time to let the feeling develop. You feel a whole other closeness when you approach the music this way.”
Sanders plays in cooperation with DeFrancesco’s muted trumpet on “And So It Is”, a languorous theme that bobs with a gentle Latin feeling above a rhythm section that also layers organ and Fender Rhodes. Sanders takes the first solo, rambling in excellent tone over the changes, with his hard-edged sound rounded off quite a bit. DeFrancesco plays a busier solo on Rhodes, with the tines of the electric piano being matched, tonally, by Figueroa’s bell-like hand percussion. The best part of the tune, though, comes after the melody is reprised. Sanders solos again, this time in impressionistic conversation with Joey’s B3. The two voices really belong together.
The title track, “In the Key of the Universe” is the most conventional of the three Sanders tracks, with its swinging bass line (played by Roberts, actually) over a modified blues structure. All the players seem loosest here, with DeFrancesco taking a smoking solo. But there’s something that each player gets from the other: a sense of being prodded, pushed, inspired. “I never knew I was going to go this way—it just happened naturally,” DeFrancesco says. “Coltrane had the foresight to hire Pharoah and other free players. Trane was smart to sponge off of that. A lot of people don’t want to do that or don’t know if they want to do that.”
Reaching for Communion
It can be hard to say what it is, exactly, about this music that gives it a sense of spirituality. But DeFrancesco suggests it has something to do with spontaneity. “Staying fresh and always being on the cutting edge—Pharoah has always been there. That never goes away. You can stay in one bag and play standards forever, and even within that approach there are ways to stay fresh because you’re improvising.
“There are different definitions of freedom. Spiritual music is a good term. It’s about being in the moment and being aware of yourself. It’s all one big thing. it’s endless. There are so many sounds but there are only twelve notes. But it’s in how you approach them—the feeling and the time feeling. Is there anything new?”
Some of the tracks with Roberts on saxophone and without Sanders also reflect the sense of the spiritual. “A Path Through the Noise” may be the best example. It’s a ballad and there’s something powerfully intimate in that format, particularly with the Hammond organ purring beneath every note, a beautiful, shivering thing. The way the colors of the organ shade the tenor sax melody seem spiritual in the way that light coming across a mountain range at dawn suggests things bigger than our normal concerns. It’s not a catechism but a feeling.
“You have to have the right feeling. When the spiritual aspect is there, it’s really happening,” says DeFrancesco. “As you grow older, it opens you up more spiritually. Being aware of more things is important. It’s not even about religion. It’s about being in touch, in key with the universe. This makes me understand guys like Pharoah more. It’s about other cultures, not just bebop scales, though that was spiritual too.”
“Vibrations in Blue” gets at that intercultural element to spirituality. The tune simulates a sitar drone at the start and finish, using bent tones and unusual timbres. The instruments move across a non-Western scale until the groove kicks in, slow at first and then slipping into a swinging tempo at an odd time signature.
The other element of spirituality that DeFrancesco hears in this project is that of communion, bringing together the musicians who can lift his music up to a higher level. “Miles Davis is a perfect example of how you move your art along by having different musicians, the right musicians. As great as Miles was as a trumpeter, his great gift was putting musicians together. The musicians that surrounded him influenced him. That’s how you’re true to yourself—by taking these different things that you like that you’re hearing and bring those people in.” DeFrancesco played briefly in Davis’s band in 1988 when he was only 17. “We remained very close. It was so cool to have that relationship, and he was so kind to me.”
Bringing in Billy Hart for In the Key of the Universe qualifies as critical communion, of course. “He was on the original [of “The Creator Has a Master Plan”] and now, 50 years later, he’s approaching it a different way, influenced by all the music he hears,” said DeFrancesco. “He’s seventy-eight-years-old and has the energy of an eighteen-year-old. He works three hundred fifty days a year. There are a lot of great players today, but when I have something in mind, I like to go directly to the source, and I’ll always do that. When the guys are still walking the earth, you have to learn from these people.”
It’s clear at the same time that DeFrancesco draws a stream of power from younger bandmates too. The leader and Roberts are twinned and deeply simpatico on “Away and Blissed”, which flies out of the gate in swinging four-four, DeFrancesco soloing on both B3 and electric piano. “It Swung Wide Open” is also up-tempo, with tight unison playing between Roberts’ tenor and DeFrancesco’s organ—a real old school driver with the players trading eights like sparring partners. “This is what keeps the music evolving,” says DeFrancesco, “different influences. Troy started playing later, when he was thirteen, in Australia. He’s a genius. Within three years, he was playing with the top people over there. His father is a big music fan, and he had access to all the great records. His favorites were Time Out [The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Columbia, 1959] and Kind of Blue [Miles Davis, Columbia, 1959]. He’s one of those.”
In the Key of the Universe doesn’t feel like a pivot point for DeFrancesco, despite these influences, senior and junior. His music is a steady thing, so deeply powered by a tradition larger than any one moment—the jazz legacy of both his native city, Philadelphia, and his main instrument, the Hammond B3 organ. But there is an evolution. He keeps reaching backward in order to reach forward.
The past inspires the future, makes it possible. The spiritual legacy of Pharoah Sanders, of course, lives on in Sanders himself, whose playing is still pure and clear. And new players climb aboard too. In the Key of the Universe doesn’t sound like an attempt to remake the moment quite the way Kamasi Washington’s The Epic did, but it also feels more aware of its debt to something powerful.
“I know what I’m doing, what my approach is. There’s room for everybody in creative music,” DeFrancesco says.
Additional reading on PopMatters:
“Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco Drive Each Other Crazy, in a Good Way“, by Steve Horowitz, 27 Apr 2018
“Joey DeFrancesco: Organic Vibes“, by Will Layman, 3 May 2006
“Joey DeFrancesco with Jimmy Smith: Legacy“, by Matt Cibula, 27 Mar 2005