THE DOZENS: TO B-3 OR NOT B-3 . . . A GUIDE TO JAZZ ORGAN TRIOS by Steve Greenlee

Despite the undisputed genius of its most famous player, “The Incredible” Jimmy Smith, the organ has always had to fight for respect among some jazz aficionados. Heck, some people don’t even consider soul-jazz to be real jazz. (Well, they’re wrong.) In the wrong hands, yes, the Hammond B3 can be used as a gimmick that masks a paucity of talent. Compared to a piano, it is less subtle and more forgiving of error. And heaven help the next organist who sustains a note for 30 seconds or more. But a masterful organist can convey as much heart and soul as a pianist, and get his listeners dancing while he’s at it.

The heyday of the Hammond B3 came in the 1960s, but the instrument has been experiencing a renaissance in the past decade or so, thanks partly to Hammond’s decision to manufacture the machine again but also to a younger crop of inspired musicians who include Joey DeFrancesco and John Medeski. The best way to start listening to a jazz organist is in the most stripped-down setting, the trio. (Because an organist can play the bass notes on the pedals, an organ trio usually includes a guitarist and drummer.) Here are a dozen of the finest jazz trio recordings out there.


Jimmy Smith: Walkin'

Track

Walkin’

Artist

Jimmy Smith (organ)

CD

Groovin’ at Smalls’ Paradise (Blue Note 1585/6)

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Musicians:

Jimmy Smith (organ), Eddie McFadden (guitar), Donald Bailey (drums).

Recorded: New York, November 15, 1957

Albumcoverjimmysmith-groovinatsmallsparadise

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Jimmy Smith was the most important organist in jazz, the guy who turned the Hammond B-3 into a bona fide jazz instrument, and Groovin’ at Smalls’ Paradise is his greatest recording. A two-disc set drawn from a night at the famed Harlem jazz club, it burns and grooves like mad. “Walkin’” is taken at a nice middle tempo, Smith’s feet literally walking the familiar bassline on the pedals while his hands massage the keyboards. Guitarist Eddie McFadden’s solo is particularly bright and effusive, punctuated by Smith’s swirls and stabs. Smith’s own solo, which begins at the 4½-minute mark and runs for 5 whole minutes, tears up the keys with machine-gun rapidity. It ranks among his most invigorating moments on record. A perfect blues from a great trio.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Jimmy Smith: This Guy's in Love with You

Track

This Guy’s in Love With You

Artist

Jimmy Smith (organ)

CD

The Boss (Verve V6-8770)

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Musicians:

Jimmy Smith (organ), George Benson (guitar), Donald Bailey (drums).

Composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David

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Recorded: Atlanta, 1968

Albumcoverjimmysmith-theboss

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

The schmaltzy Burt Bacharach/Hal David pop song “This Guy’s in Love with You” was for a while something of a jazz standard (and it’s coming around again, with new versions by the Bad Plus and others). Its most natural-sounding incarnation is the one recorded by Jimmy Smith’s trio at an Atlanta club in 1968. Despite the recording’s obvious flaw – the inconsiderate crowd at Paschal’s La Carousel is heard talking throughout the tune – the trio puts on a soul-jazz master class. Donald Bailey’s drumming is clean and crisp, and George Benson’s smooth genius on the guitar is already on display. Smith lays low at first, holding down chords for Benson, and then comes alive with a solo that throws every conceivable B-3 idea at the chart.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Grant Green: Old Folks

Track

Old Folks

Artist

Grant Green (guitar)

CD

Grantstand (Blue Note 84086)

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Musicians:

Grant Green (guitar), Jack McDuff (organ), Al Harewood (drums).

Recorded: New York, August 1, 1961

Albumcovergrantgreen-grantstand

Rating: 94/100 (learn more)

Many of the finest organ trio recordings were actually made under the guitarist’s name as leader. Guitarist Grant Green played in many formats, and he was at the top of his game with just an organist and a drummer supporting him. The four-minute take of “Old Folks” puts him in the driver’s seat right away, setting the tone with a shimmering melodic introduction that leads to a pretty solo. Jack McDuff comps as lightly as an organist can before he offers up his own solo contribution. Then Green takes command again and concludes the tune with a delicate little coda.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Grant Green: Talkin' About J.C.

Track

Talkin’ About J.C.

Artist

Grant Green (guitar)

CD

Talkin’ About (Blue Note 84183)

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Musicians:

Grant Green (guitar), Larry Young (Khalid Yasin) (organ), Elvin Jones (drums).

Composed by Larry Young

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Recorded: New York, September 11, 1964

Albumcovergrantgreen-talkinabout

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Larry Young, an original voice who approached the organ more like a piano, seldom recorded in a trio setting, so it is a delight to hear him performing his John Coltrane tribute “Talkin’ About J.C.” with Grant Green and Coltrane’s drummer Elvin Jones. Young is a different sort of a foil for Green, eschewing the typical B-3 tricks – held notes, repeated phrases – in favor of pure harmonic counterpoint. The dynamic interplay between guitar and organ crescendos as the song gradually heads toward its climax, spurred by Jones’s volcanic drumming. Just three musicians, but there is a heck of a lot happening here.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Wes Montgomery: Besame Mucho

Track

Besame Mucho

Artist

Wes Montgomery (guitar)

CD

Boss Guitar (Riverside 9459/OJCCD-261-2)

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Musicians:

Wes Montgomery (guitar), Jimmy Cobb (drums),

Melvin Rhyne (organ)

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Recorded: New York, April 22, 1963

Albumcoverwesmontgomery-bossguitar

Rating: 90/100 (learn more)

The Latin ballad “Besame Mucho” is taken at a very quick 6/8 here. Jimmy Cobb starts with his brushes, pauses for two bars, and then picks up his sticks, which alters the complexion of the piece at the same time organist Melvin Rhyne intensifies his own playing, which is the current that carries the tune along. It’s nothing fancy, but it gives Montgomery exactly the underpinning he needs to showcase his own lyrical ability. At 4:05, Montgomery and Rhyne engage in eight measures of tandem counter-rhythmic attack that forces the listener’s fingers and toes into an involuntarily tap-along. As the tune comes to a close, Rhyne – not exactly a household name among organ players – slips in an effective solo that displays his imagination.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Richard 'Groove' Holmes: Indiana

Track

(Back Home Again in) Indiana

Artist

CD

On Basie’s Bandstand (Prestige PRCD-11028-2)

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Musicians:

Richard 'Groove' Holmes (organ),

Gene Edwards (guitar), George Randall (drums)

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Recorded: New York, April 22, 1966

Albumcoverrichardgrooveholmes-onbasiesbandstand

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Now here is a burning number. Richard “Groove” Holmes pulls out all the stops in leading his trio through a riotous take of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” to open a stand at Count Basie’s in New York. He does everything imaginable to his B-3 over the course of these nine and a half minutes – dazzling runs up and down the keys, pulse-quickening arpeggios and glissandos, hair-raising sustains. The drummer, George Randall, churns and churns the rhythm, eliciting sympathy for his poor drum kit, which is having its senses knocked out. Guitarist Gene Edwards, who had been comping ably with chords, strikes forth with a blistering, single-note solo, and then Holmes is at it again, soloing in double time. What a romp.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Mark Whitfield: OGD (Road Song)

Track

OGD (Road Song)

Artist

Mark Whitfield (guitar)

CD

Mark Whitfield and the Groove Masters (Vega Records ART-1030)

Musicians:

Mark Whitfield (guitar), Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ),

Winard Harper (drums)

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Recorded: Tokyo, August 6, 2005

Albumcovermarkwhitfieldandthegroovemasters

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

“OGD” is one of the most recognizable songs in Wes Montgomery’s catalogue, and yet Mark Whitfield’s trio, the Groove Masters, owns it here. Mark Whitfield and the Groove Masters is one of the best organ trio recordings to come along in recent years, and “OGD” is its highlight. In one measure Whitfield carefully searches for his notes, and in the next he picks with blazing speed. Dr. Lonnie Smith plays a single bass note for much of the tune, infusing it with a heart-pumping quality, and out of his hands spill some of the most soulful notions ever heard in the Eastern Hemisphere or anywhere else. Drummer Winard Harper doesn’t seek the spotlight, but his constantly changing propulsion is key to the dynamic feeling of the performance.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Tony Monaco: The Cat

Track

The Cat

Artist

Tony Monaco (organ)

CD

Intimately Live at the 501 (Summit Records DCD 341)

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Musicians:

Tony Monaco (organ),

Robert Kraut (guitar), Louis Tsamous (drums)

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Composed by Lalo Schifrin

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Recorded: Columbus, Ohio, May 26, 2002

Albumcovertonymonaco-intimatelyliveatthe501

Rating: 88/100 (learn more)

As a teenager, Tony Monaco suffered a polio-like disease that left him with nerve damage, yet he has become one of the more interesting organists on today’s scene. A disciple of Jimmy Smith, Monaco is sometimes given to such Hammond clichés as unreasonably long sustains, but he can chew up a tune and spit it back out, which his does with Lalo Schifrin’s classic composition “The Cat,” which became a staple of Smith. Not all jazz need be great art, and this certainly isn’t. What it is, however, is great fun – and an organ trio doesn’t get more blatantly enjoyable than what Monaco served up at the 501 Jazz Bar in Columbus, Ohio, in the spring of 2002.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Dr. Lonnie Smith: The Whip

Track

The Whip

Artist

CD

Too Damn Hot (Palmetto Records PM 2105)

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Musicians:

Dr. Lonnie Smith (organ),

Peter Bernstein (guitar), Rodney Jones (rhythm guitar), Furushi Tainaka (drums)

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Recorded: New York, January 5-6, 2004

Albumcoverdoctorlonniesmith-toodamnhot

Rating: 91/100 (learn more)

Perhaps the most underrated organist of his generation, Dr. Lonnie Smith has come into his own really only in the past several years, with a batch of terrific old-school soul-jazz albums. This one, OK, technically isn’t a trio outing, but the two guitarists – one playing rhythm, one playing the solos – tend not to overlap, so it sounds like a trio. “The Whip,” written by Smith, is a simple enough blues, but the group’s touches – including the stop-start nature of its intro – add some unexpected excitement. Smith hands the first solo over to guitarist Peter Bernstein, who has a nice, clean voice and gets a strong, deep tone from the thicker strings. Smith’s swirling solo is right out of Blue Note circa 1965, but he’s got his own things to say, playing wonderfully behind and against the beat. Hot stuff.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Joey DeFrancesco: The Champ

Track

The Champ

Artist

CD

Incredible! (Concord Records CCD-4890-2)

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Musicians:

Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Paul Bollenback (guitar), Byron Landham (drums).

Composed by Dizzy Gillespie

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Recorded: San Francisco, October 28, 1999

Albumcoverjoeydefrancesco-incredible

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Joey DeFrancesco is this era’s Hammond B-3 star, and rightfully so. He’s a master and a kindred spirit of Jimmy Smith, whose trio joined DeFrancesco’s for the final two numbers of this album, recorded at the 1999 San Francisco Jazz Festival. Still, even given the electricity of that collaboration, the piece de resistance of the concert was the DeFrancesco trio’s rendition of the Dizzy Gillespie tune “The Champ.” The group ruminates for 13 minutes and never revisits an idea. Check out what DeFrancesco does at 5:20: Right and left hand peck with stunning speed, seemingly arguing with each other and throwing off sparks like mad. The trio sets off such fireworks with this opener that you fear they can’t go anywhere but down when it’s over. Happily such a letdown fails to materialize.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Medeski Martin & Wood: Chubb Sub

Track

Chubb Sub

Group

Medeski Martin & Wood

CD

Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Gramavision GCD 79503)

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Musicians:

John Medeski (organ), Billy Martin (drums), Chris Wood (bass).

Recorded: New York, July 24-26, 1994

Albumcovermedeskimartinandwood-fridayafternoonintheuniverse

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

Medeski Martin & Wood deserve a lot of credit for getting young people into jazz by tricking them into confusing it with jam-band music a la Phish. These guys constitute an atypical organ trio – there’s an upright bass and no guitar, largely because they started off as a piano trio. Also, John Medeski plays all sorts of keyboards, not just Hammond B-3. “Chubb Sub,” one of the trio’s earlier recordings, has Medeski mostly on the Hammond but also on the Wurlitzer for a few bars. A solid groove of a number that was used to great effect in the film Get Shorty, it demonstrates that B-3 practitioners do not have to invoke Jimmy Smith every time they sit down. For one thing, these guys interact equally throughout the tune, as opposed to taking turns soloing. Wood’s loose-string plucking and Martin’s thick-sounding drumming create a different sort of aesthetic, and Medeski’s from-the-soul playing owes as much to Booker T. & the MG’s as to Smith and his ilk.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


Ken Clark: Eternal Funk

Track

Eternal Funk

Artist

Ken Clark (organ)

CD

Eternal Funk (Severn Records 0021)

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Musicians:

Ken Clark (organ),

Mike Mele (guitar), Steve Chaggaris (drums)

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Recorded: Crownsville, Maryland, 2003

Albumcoverkenclark-eternalfunk

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

You’ve probably never heard of organist Ken Clark, but he deserves wider attention. “Eternal Funk” is a smoking blues number with a funk-rock beat and a catchy melody that sears itself into the brain. Clark doesn’t waste a note or resort to any B-3 gimmickry; instead he quietly escalates the intensity of the performance. Guitarist Mike Mele and Steve Chaggaris, who handle their roles more than ably, engage Clark in a mysterious huddle of an interlude at the halfway point that erupts into a craze of action, like a football team drawing up a play and then throwing a bomb for a touchdown.

Reviewer: Steve Greenlee


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