Dr. Lonnie Smith: People Make The World Go Round

The Stylistics originally introduced the song “People Make the World Go Round” in 1972 and with lyrics like “Buses on strike want a raise in fare, so they can help pollute the air,” it was popular music with a message. Sung falsetto with a soulfully slow, voice-dominant Motown approach, it was a hit and it had a memorable melody. With a commanding grasp of the power and expression that the Hammond B3 can release when properly employed, Dr. Smith puts a unique and engaging spin on otherwise familiar song.

With Herlin Riley’s funky, syncopated beat, Dr. Smith takes the basic song structure and weaves it into a modern multi-dimensional piece. With a driving beat that is both disquieting and infectiously captivating, he retains the song’s familiarity but makes it a much more interesting vehicle of expression.

The soulful alto of Donald Harrison evokes memories of Maceo Parker. Harrison is allowed to bellow away in front of the full sound created by Smith, Riley and Shipp and wails with a funky, passionate cry. Berstein’s solo is more restrained. Time signatures vary and when it’s time for Smith to solo he remains undaunted in his grunt-accompanied B3 riff explorations fronting Riley’s droning drums and James Shipp’s steady cowbell. Midway the song takes on a modern almost modal feel. Smith is a master of building tension with his sustained notes, holding them just long enough before skillfully breaking them abruptly as he does in the finale. A nice remake of an old Motown favorite.

April 13, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Bruno: Pat's House

About 10 years younger than Pat Martino, Jimmy Bruno is the "other" virtuoso Philadelphia jazz guitarist, if not nearly as well-known as Pat. Bruno went on the road with the Buddy Rich Big Band at age 19, then worked in Las Vegas and on the West Coast, and has been a fixture on the Philly jazz scene since 1988. It's fitting that Martino wrote the liner notes for this CD, in which he calls Bruno "one of the most astounding players I've had the pleasure of knowing." Bruno in turn acknowledges Martino--both in the title and in his playing on it--with the original "Pat's House."

The track (and the entire CD, Like That) features Joey DeFrancesco, and could easily fool many listeners if surreptitiously inserted into the mix of Live at Yoshi's, Martino's celebrated collaboration with DeFrancesco that came several years after this Bruno encounter with the ebullient (also Philly-born) organist. Bruno usually doesn't sound this much like Martino, but a tribute is a tribute. The tension and darting intricacy of a Martino composition is omnipresent here, as introduced by Bruno's fleet fingers. DeFrancesco takes the first solo, a steamy, driven affair loaded with insistent recurring phrases, swirling extended lines, and stair-stepping progressions. Bruno replays the theme before entering his own propulsive solo. The guitarist exhibits brilliant technique and fiery emotion as he indulges in a blend of dense runs, strummed chords, and octave-dominated passages. After Holloway's energized drum statement, Bruno and DeFrancesco initiate a series of blistering, unreserved exchanges. This is one of Bruno's best recorded tracks--thanks for the inspiration, Pat!

March 31, 2009 · 0 comments


Radam Schwartz: Grieve But Be Brief

In this soulful blues song that sounds like it could be the mood setter for a particularly poignant scene from a movie or particularly maudlin soap opera, we find a particularly sympathetic symbiosis between Williams and Schwartz at work.

Williams has a soulful sound on his alto that ekes out sadness and sorrow to perfection with a tone that reminds me of Cannonball, an influence no doubt. Schwartz manipulates the sound of his organ to match Williams’ evocative mood. Together the two have created an unusually simple but potent communication between them. They tell a story of grief and expression but end on hope and don’t allow the piece to extend itself into melancholy. Schwartz dances with his right hand while sustaining with his left to wring out the required effect. It is a testament to these two musicians that in this minimalist format they can deliver such a strong emotionally charged performance. With the exception of an overreaching flourish by Williams toward the end that just barely misses the mark, this is a testament to the theory that sometimes less is more.

March 25, 2009 · 0 comments


Dr. Lonnie Smith: Come Together

In 1969, Dr. Lonnie Smith covered The Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby." Forty years later, he is tackling a Beatles tune that was introduced the same year he covered "Rigby," the Abbey Road hit "Come Together." There's no boogaloo beat this time, but rather a stomping rock strut. And there're even some vocals … sort of. The first couple of verses are rendered by Smith in an indecipherable snarl so lowdown & dirty, it could be mistaken for the Cookie Monster with a head cold.

The backing band is James Brown funky and airtight, but once the guttural growling is done, Smith opens up on the organ with swells and trills that wring all the possible emotions out of a B-3. Donald Harrison enters late with an inspired Cannonball-styled testimonial that ends way too soon.

The song is so substantially redone from the original that just about the only thing carried over is the cocky, hip disposition. That's all Dr. Smith needed to take from "Come Together," because he knows what to do with it from there.

March 17, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: Midnight Special

“Midnight Special” may be the tastiest recording Jimmy Smith ever made. Recorded at a session that produced both the albums Back At The Chicken Shack and Midnight Special, this medium blues (an original, not the rock/blues classic) moves along at an absolutely perfect tempo and completely captures the mood of a slow-moving midnight freight train. It’s a groove you could ride all night, and while this cut comes in at just under 10 minutes, you get the feeling that the quartet played on it for another half-hour or so after the recording faded out. In fact, maintaining that groove seemed to be the primary goal and each soloist (most notably Smith) knew how to express himself without losing the mood. And in that regard, it’s important to note that there’s never the feeling of the soloists holding back. It’s just that wonderful skill of playing together to create something bigger and better than its individual parts.

March 15, 2009 · 0 comments


Tobin Mueller: River Runs Through Me

As a writer for jazz.com, I choose selected cuts to review based upon what I feel are "noteworthy" jazz performances. There are many such performances on keyboardist and composer Tobin Mueller's Rain Bather. So how do I decide which to review? I have different criteria I like to use, but one is to choose a piece most different from the rest of the material. To me this is a good way to determine an artist's scope. Most of Rain Bather is take-no-prisoners jazz/fusion/sometimes electronica/swing. In contrast, "River Runs Through Me" is a lovely ballad performed by a most unusual trio. Leader Tobin Mueller plays B-3 organ. His nephew Chris Mueller stars on acoustic piano. This unusual duo is joined by the saxophonist Woody Mankowski.

In my review of another cut from the album, "Must Go Back," I talk about my intrigue with the sonic combination of B-3 organ and acoustic piano. This performance only deepens that interest. Mankowski plays the beautiful melody with a caring knowledge. Pianist Mueller then appears alone and continues the trend. Further on, pianist and saxophonist express more of their feelings as the B-3 adds unique shading and flourishes. Tobin Mueller's scope and generosity both come across on this CD. He is quite capable of soloing and showing off. Instead he stays back a bit, adding just the right ingredients to make everything work in a most interesting way. He is a rhythm keeper without playing rhythm and an accompanist without accompanying in the traditional sense. It is quite fascinating. I am unaware of anyone else playing B-3 in quite this way.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Tobin Mueller: Must Go Back

Many of the cuts on keyboardist Tobin Mueller's Rain Bather are new jazz versions of tunes he wrote for his Broadway show Creature. Pianist Chris Mueller performed for that show, and so was extremely familiar with "Must Go Back." I point this out because it is the relationship between Mueller's B-3 and his nephew's acoustic piano that I find most intriguing. You don't hear those instruments engaged very often, especially in a band this small. On such a driving track, the Muellers' sound, in conjunction and disjunction, is quite unusual and captivating. The keyboards may have the same layout, but the approach to playing them is dissimilar. Nephew Mueller flies up and down his keys in a tour-de-force display of chops. Uncle Mueller holds back at times, supplying long B-3 sustain to bolster his nephew's romps. But he catches fire as well. Bassist Jeff Cox and drummer Dane Richeson are every bit as hot. This powerfully swinging tune may be performed by a quartet, but the band's force is greater than the sum of its parts. "Must Go Back" is a demand you cannot resist.

February 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Jimmy Smith: Open House

For this extended blowing session, Rudy Van Gelder opened his house to Jimmy Smith's core trio and a formidable front line of soloists. Each horn man is given ample space to stretch out in this 16-minute blues opus, and the results are thoroughly engaging across the board. Blue Mitchell exhibits his crystal-clear warm tone and reminds us exactly why he was given his nickname. Jackie McLean's Bird-influenced choruses are splendidly constructed, and Ike Quebec, gruff and rough, is all blues all the time. Drummer Bailey's shuffling swing and Smith's full-bodied organ and walking bass inspire each soloist without overshadowing them (as the organist was occasionally known to do on blowing dates). The intensity peaks when guitarist Quentin Warren chimes in, adding some R&B-influenced comping behind Smith's climactic solo (note their call and response at 13:29 and Warren really digging in at 14:00). A fun and groovy straight-ahead track, "Open House" is one of Blue Note's best blowing sessions.

January 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Brian Charette: Missing Floor

As everyone knows, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But if we all took that route the world would be a mighty boring place. Organist Brian Charette is one guy who eschews straight lines. Good for us. Charette and drummer Jochen Ruekert have a death grip on the thick groove that supports "Missing Floor." Charette gets it going with a hypnotic walking bassline. Ruekert's brush work is fantastic. At some point he adds a tabla, or facsimile sound. This takes us even farther into the mantra that the duo has developed. We are now firmly stuck in its vortex. I must say that Charette and Ruekert are playing some of the most intriguing and compelling music I have heard of late.

Let's get back to that "straight line" metaphor. Charette plays either the note before the one you'd expect or the one after. It reminds me of my daughter telling me to stay on the same color tile at the mall no matter how far her aging daddy has to jump, or to avoid the cracks in the concrete so as to not to break my mother's back. Charette does the jumping and he plays the cracks. There are no straight lines for him.

January 04, 2009 · 0 comments


Brian Charette: Moontrane

Sometimes a composition is so compelling you can never seem to hear a bad version of it. Thus far that has been true for me when it comes to Woody Shaw's "The Moontrane." I have heard this tune in all sorts of instrumental configurations. I have listened to both Woody Shaw and Dexter Gordon play it. I have even heard them play it together. But my two favorite interpretations are by B-3 organists. Larry Young's version on Unity is the benchmark. Granted, it didn't hurt to have the song's composer on trumpet, Joe Henderson on sax and Elvin Jones on drums! Still, the thrust of the melody came from Young. To my ears the organ gave "The Moontrane" more of a solid groove than the trumpet or saxophone did. Alongside Young's performance now stands Brian Charette's.

This "Moontrane" is short and stripped down. (Even its song title is truncated, with "The" falling through Charette's Missing Floor.) By simplifying the instrumentation to just himself on organ and Jochen Ruekert on drums, Charette gives the composition more room to breathe. This duo swings like hell. Your head will be involuntarily nodding in approval upon your first listen. Charette is not Larry Young. He makes his own way, as evidenced by the rest of this CD's wildly disparate cuts. Even so, he listened to Larry Young. And he knows that Young was a real killer on this number. Charette took a risk covering it, but his spare yet inventive approach paid off. You pay homage to your influences by sharing their taste but not their style.

January 03, 2009 · 0 comments


Larry Young: Street Scene

Larry Young's celebrated 1965 Blue Note album Unity found him reaching beyond the organ trio format and coming into his own. While the "Coltrane of the Organ" moniker didn't seem to go to his head, this piece features plenty of the exploratory depth that had found its way into jazz by 1969. So while the tune is simple enough, Young wastes no time adding layers of embellishments before opening it up to his front line. Lee Morgan proves completely adaptable to this non-hard bop session, as does Herbert Morgan (no relation), a rarely heard Newark, New Jersey-based player. Both acquit themselves admirably, and if that sounds like a less than ringing endorsement, it's only because Young is the main action here. While he comps in a respectful manner, there's always something going on underneath that nearly distracts from anything else being played. Mind you, I'm not complaining. He sounds great, and the drums take the role of willing coconspirator, creating some explosive moments.

November 18, 2008 · 0 comments


Dr. Lonnie Smith: Eleanor Rigby

When dipping into the Beatles bag, "Eleanor Rigby" might be the tune that jazzers grab onto most, and for good reason. It's one of their most unforgettable melodies, and its simple, minor harmony can be vamped, lending itself as easily to cerebral modal exploration as to blues-inflected blowing. Lonnie Smith chooses Option #2, transforming Paul McCartney's solemn tale of the lonely Ms. Rigby and desolate Father McKenzie into a soul-jazz boogaloo jam. The mysterious ambiance created by the intro's billowing trills carries over into Smith's serpentine organ melody, which slithers around punctuated horn interjections. After two verses, Muhammad kicks in his famous boogaloo beat, and young Maupin steps up with an economical, bluesy chorus—so laid-back he sounds like he's in slow-motion! Smith plays the blues with conviction, unfurling an endless supply of licks atop Sparks's wildly enthusiastic comping.

November 06, 2008 · 0 comments


Roland Kirk with Jack McDuff: The Skaters Waltz

A year after he recorded Introducing Roland Kirk and just months before he participated in Charles Mingus's Oh Yeah sessions, Roland Kirk recorded this hard-bop/soul-jazz session with organist Jack McDuff. Kirk is in fine form throughout, usually opting for a single horn (or flute on "Funk Underneath") to complement McDuff's spirited playing. On the album's concluding track, "The Skater's Waltz," a fine opening Kirk break and solo statements by Kirk and McDuff are followed by a combination of fours – first between Kirk and McDuff, then between Kirk and drummer Art Taylor. A fine example of a somewhat restrained early Kirk perhaps still searching for a balance between his encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz tradition and his quest for downright stylistic originality.

October 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Larry Young: The Moontrane

An absolutely essential recording, Unity is also the template for the “progressive” jazz organ date. While it’s organist Larry Young’s date, Unity could also be thought of as Woody Shaw’s coming-out party as an important jazz composer, with three originals of his on the record. It’s also notable as an early document of the Woody/Joe Henderson front line. “The Moontrane” has become a modern jazz standard, subsequently recorded by Woody in a number of recordings, both studio and live. While his solos on later versions, such as the 1975 recording on Muse, may have more reach and fire, I have a special regard for the solo statements of young Woody on this first version from 1965. This record has been a real touchstone for musicians ever since it came out, and I vividly remember my own excitement in first hearing it over 30 years ago!

September 17, 2008 · 0 comments


Larry Young (featuring Elvin Jones): Monk's Dream

The complexities of Elvin Jones's drumming style are superbly communicated throughout "Monk's Dream." He is playing many of his rapid-fire polyrhythmic runs and multilayered comping ideas honed in John Coltrane's group, yet both tempo and energy are more relaxed on this grooving Monk composition. Therefore, while it's easy for Jones's phenomenal ideas to whiz right by your ears (and brain!) throughout the intensity that was the Coltrane Quartet, many of the same ideas are presented more clearly, but no less impressively, on this second Larry Young record. On a completely different level, it's also pleasing to hear Elvin lay back and play a simple groove with an organist, his deep pocket but light touch creating a perfect foundation for Young's layering.

August 03, 2008 · 0 comments


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