Groovin’: The Sound of the Soul-Jazz Organ Vibe in the Present Day Jam

On the future-looking new releases from Dr. Lonnie Smith and Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio.

Like rock’s power trio sound—a guitarist’s gambit which commenced with the likes of Cream, Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Jeff Beck’s Beck-Bogert-Appice—the roar of jazz’s organ trio’s soulful tone is a prominent part of that genre’s canon, one that, like the power trio, has a funk as flexible as a palm tree with twice the branches. When the church organ dropped its windy pipes after the Depression for size and cost factors, it was the Hammond B-3 that picked up the slack and created multiple rainbows of color, whether through its sliding drawbars, its metal tonewheels, or of course, its Leslie speaker’s whirr, complete with “chorale” and “tremolo” settings.

No, jazz isn’t the only vibe the Hammond B-3 is beloved for: Steve Winwood’s driving organ work with Spencer Davis Group and Traffic, Jon Lord’s immense aggressive moan for Deep Purple, Booker T. Jones’ mean organ grinding with the M.G.s, Al Kooper’s emotional keys for Bob Dylan, and Billy Preston acting as another Beatle and a Rolling Stone—all had a Hammond B-3 at their pimp hand. Though Count Basie and Fats Waller experimented with the organ during its wooly early developments in the mid-1930s, from the late 1940s through to the funky 1950s, the psychedelic soulful ’60s, and the grooving Blaxploitative ’70s, the jazz organ trio vibe was one of the genre’s most innovative.

From Wild Bill Davis, Baby Face Willette, and Milt Herth, through to the practitioners of the original Sound of Philadelphia—Philly Hammond B-3 overlords Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Charles Earland, Bill Doggett, Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Reuben Wilson, Larry Young, and the DeFrancesco family, from Papa John to Joey De—the amplified Hammond B3 in a jazz setting offered the epic power of a big band with but one player at the controls. This deep baked-and-bred brand of jazz a la the Hammond B-3 organ was touched by the Godly spirit of gospel with the devil-may-care blues for good measure. And lest anyone hear the Hammond B-3 and find its trio setting limited—meant for grimy saloons, greasy spoons, and dive bars—they need only hear Joey DeFrancesco’s recent free jazz sounds with saxophonist Pharoah Sanders for 2019’s In the Key of the Universe, his emotive rockouts in collaboration with anti-vaxxer Van Morrison on their joint, name-above-the-title project, 2018’s You’re Driving Me Crazy, and his own politicized, spiritualized, ritualized Project Freedom from 2017.

Where the jazz-blues organ trio resides at its best in 2021 is warmly, and with two ace practitioners of the genre, in one of its legendary elders Dr. Lonnie Smith and his newest album, Believe, and with a younger-but-no-less wise purveyor, Delvon Lamarr and his trio’s I Told You So.

Start with the pumping, bumping Lamarr and his hip-shaking, guitar-and-funk, drummer-based “Jimmy’s Groove.” Yes, James Brown’s grungy funk is all over this cut, and yet, there’s nothing retro about the track. Lamarr and his team have found something fresh in the funk that’s simply delicious. The same thing is true of the prog-soul of “Right Place, Right Time,” and the giddy “Girly Face”—both being inventive and familiar. And if we’re looking for something warmly familiar, dazzlingly artful and out-of-bounds innovative, try on DLO3’s impressionist take on George Michael’s “Careless Whisper,” in a version that manages to appropriate both words in that title, yet remains coolly sensual.

Meanwhile, just the fact that Dr. Lonnie Smith had a documentary made on him and his jazz aesthetic (Dr. B3: The Soul of the Music) is enough to portray his storied history with the Hammond. Along with being the next-to-best part of 1966’s blowsy George Benson Quartet, it’s ever since Smith’s luxurious debut—the aptly titled Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ of 1967—that the good doctor has maintained signatures such as a light touch, a heavy, mesmeric groove, a love of luscious melody lines, and a drive toward accessibility without forgoing experimentation. With that, Smith changed the manner in which jazz aficionados felt the B-3’s sound, something less heavy, more heavenly, and rivetingly spacy and spacious without missing a beat. Smith even managed several slippery, sinister hit cover albums to his name, upping his game with Afro Blue: Tribute to John Coltrane, his two volumes in dedication to the work of Jimi Hendrix, Foxy Lady, and Purple Haze, and Boogaloo to Beck: A Tribute.

Smith’s last three albums, however, all with Blue Note, have moved the needles considerably where ruminative organ playing and composition come to play, again with appropriately named recordings such as 2016’s Evolution, 2018’s All in My Mind, and his brand new blues, Breathe. Rather than stick to his usual trio format, each album shows Smith painting Pollock-like variations on the H-B-3 form. These expansive yet taut workouts offer more textures and colors when it comes to Smith’s playing, and the bold palette of rhythms brings to mind hip-hop options at their most languid. Smith and a small core of forward-funking musicians (including core trio vets Johnathan Blake (drums) and Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar), along with a team of reed and brass men) do the improbable—they keep pace with, and best, Breathe’s boldest vocal collaborator, Iggy Pop.

Yes, Pop’s sundowning years have found him, like Smith, experimenting wily with variations on his usual themes. Little, however, prepares you for Smith’s stair-climbing salt organ runs—fluid and noisy—bucked against Pop’s earth’s-core-boring baritone on the likes of a smolderingly smoky version of Timmy Thomas’ 1972’ soul-honing “Why Can’t We Live Together” and a chilled-out boogaloo-stylized take on Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Both Smith and Pop are in their seventies, and are mining new adventures in time, rhyme, and jazz by making it conversational, sardonic and jovial. The only thing better than another Pop album with Josh Homme would be another full album between Pop and the Doctor.

That Smith bests himself beyond his trip with Iggy by going backwards (live, at The Jazz Standard in New York City, with originals, such as “Bright Eyes,” conjuring his dirtiest ’60s work), grooving slowly (“Track 9”), and moving through the oblong jazz offshoots of Jupiter (a spacy take on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy”) says that Smith is moving future-forward at the speed of sound, and taking the history of the Hammond B-3 organ with him as he travels. Good for the Doctor. Great for fans of the H-B-3. FL

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