Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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DeFrancesco, Joey (Joseph Frederick)

Organist Joey DeFrancesco has almost singlehandedly brought his instrument back into the jazz mainstream since the 1980s. The son and grandson of well-known jazz musicians, he has helped spark a renaissance of interest in jazz organ, at a time when the instrument had few successful practitioners.

DeFrancesco's solo lines and style are very influenced by Jimmy Smith, who he considers an idol, but are also very fluid, which demonstrates his excellence and formidability. In addition to his melodic abilities, he also plays very independent bass lines, which displays his gift of separating the duality of the organ, of which very few do as well as he.

Joseph Frederick DeFrancesco was born on April 10th, 1971 in Springfield, Pennsylvania. He is the son of Hammond B-3 organist “Papa” John DeFrancesco and the grandson of Joe Francesco. His grandfather Joe was a very well respected and successful musician who didn’t start playing music professionally until he was 29 years old. He also played with the Dorsey Brothers band for an extended period of time and was known as an able musician that could hold his own on almost any instrument he played.

From a very early age Joey traveled with his father to various clubs and combined with piano lessons at the age four, set the course for the youngest DeFrancesco to make his own mark on music. By the time he was ten years old he had already sat in with organ master Jack McDuff and played with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley at a Philadelphia nightspot.

DeFrancesco attended the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, during which time he was in school with the Roots drummer, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. He also racked up several awards and accolades before he finished high school, some of which included winning first place in the Philadelphia Jazz Society’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship. He also placed third at the first Thelonious Monk Competition when it was held in 1987.

When DeFrancesco was only seventeen years old, trumpet master Miles Davis asked him to join his band. The budding organist toured Europe with Davis from September to November in 1988 and eventually took up the trumpet, having been inspired by Davis. The young organist also plays organ on Davis’ song “Cobra,” from his album Amandla. In addition to playing Davis, DeFrancesco also signed with Columbia Records in 1988 for a five-album deal.

He released his first album, All of Me, in 1989 on Columbia. Though the album was not well received, he followed this up with several noteworthy albums, which included 1990’s Where Were You and 1991’s Part III. Both of these albums ushered DeFrancesco in as the guy to watch out for on the B-3. His 1992 album Reboppin’ featured Paul Bollenback on guitar and Byron Landham on drums. They can be heard on the Horace Silver penned "Sister Sadie."

In 1993, DeFrancesco released Live at the 5 Spot, which featured his cover of John Coltrane’s modal classic, "Impressions."

In the early 1990s, DeFrancesco began an association with former Miles Davis and Mahavishnu guitarist John McLaughlin. The organist started playing the guitarists’ Free Spirits band. The group released a couple of albums, which included 1993’s album Tokyo Live and 1994’s After the Rain. Featured on the Tokyo Live album are the songs “No Blues" and “Mattinale." On the second tune, DeFrancesco and McLaughlin trade blistering solo lines over drummer Dennis Chambers drum beat and the organist solos on trumpet as well.

Featured on After the Rain is the trio’s cover of Mongo Santamaria’s Latin standard “Afro Blue."

On his 1999 album Incredible!, which was recorded live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, DeFrancesco is joined by one of his mentors, Jimmy Smith for the last few songs of their set. In addition, other songs of note from the performance included the Dizzy Gillespie song “The Champ."

In 2005, right before he passed, Jimmy Smith joined DeFrancesco on his Concord album The Legacy, which was completed just days before Smith died.

DeFrancesco recorded an album with actor Joe Pesci, who used to sing back in the 1960s before he made his way into acting. Their album was called Falling In Love Again Featuring Joe Diggs and was released by Concord in 2003. DeFrancesco has kept up a relentless touring schedule in the new millennium, often playing in excess of several hundred shows a year as well as being dad to his teenage daughter. He has also racked up several awards from the jazz critical community. He was voted the best organist in Down Beat magazine’s annual polls an amazing five years in a row beginning in 2002 through 2006.

It’s rare for one man to change the face of an instrument, and before he turns forty, but Joey DeFrancesco has done just that. He has approached the organ with chops and dexterity which both honor and expand the instrument's established vocabulary, and he has earned his place alongside organ greats of the past like Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, and Larry Young.

Select Discography

All of Me (Columbia, 1989)

Where Were You (Columbia, 1990)

Part III (Columbia, 1991)

Reboppin’ (Columbia, 1992)

Live at the Five Spot (Columbia, 1993)

All in the Family (High Note, 1998)

The Champ: Dedicated to Jimmy Smith (High Note, 1999)

Goodfellas (Concord, 2000)

Singin’ and Swingin’ (Concord, 2001)

Falling in Love Again Featuring Joe Diggs (Joe Pesci) (Concord, 2003)

Organic Vibes (Concord, 2006)

Contributor: Jared Pauley