Organist Joey DeFrancesco has come a long way from All of Me, his recording debut as a leader made in 1989 as a fresh-faced 17-year-old. From the get-go, the Philadelphia native established his credentials with virtuoso technique and an innate soulfulness that he brought to bear on the hulking Hammond B-3 organ which belied his young age but spoke of his deep Philly roots under the tutelage of his father, Papa John DeFrancesco, a B-3 burner in his own right. Through the 1990s, Joey was widely recognized as spearheading a renewed interested in the Hammond organ, an instrument that had fallen out of favor among musicians and the public since its golden period during the 1960s and early ’70s.
Joey’s dazzling facility was once described as "aggressively stupendous” by guitar great Pat Martino, himself a veteran of many classic B-3 sessions. Combining monstrous chops with a flair for showmanship and an unquenchable urge to burn, DeFrancesco almost single-handedly put "the beast” back in the public eye. As the late critic Leonard Feather wrote in the liner notes to his 1994 recording, All About My Girl: "No less significant in the story of Joey’s ascendancy is the ability he has shown to create excitement. The tension he is capable of building brings back to mind a tradition that began some 50 years ago, when Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts began stirring up audiences around the country. Listen to ‘Donna Lee’ and other cuts on this CD and you can hardly fail to be moved by the emotion Joey and his colleagues generate.”
Today DeFrancesco is regarded by organ aficionados as the baddest B-3 burner in the business (a claim supported by his four consecutive DownBeat Critics Poll awards for 2002, 2003, 2004, and 2005). And while Joey has never made any boastful claims about his own ranking among the organ elite—on the contrary, he has always respectfully deferred to his B-3 eldersâ??the fact is, no organist today plays with the skill, depth, and authority of this phenomenon from Philly, who has now become a respected B-3 elder himself at the ripe old age of 35.
Last year’s Legacy (Joey’s acclaimed collaboration with Jimmy Smith, his foremost mentor and hero) was aptly described by DownBeat writer Joe Woodard as "a love fest and a long-awaited summit meeting for these virtuosos from Philadelphia, who kick bass and blow two-handed improvisational fury better than virtually anyone alive.” An avowed protégé of Smith’s since he began playing organ at age 7, DeFrancesco produced this session himself with the idea of showcasing the B-3 innovator and its reigning king in a controlled studio setting. (They had previously recorded together on 2000’s live Incredible! on Concord.) As Joey told the magazine during the Legacy sessions: "I wanted him to stretch out and get to do all the things that I know he does better than anybody. He’s the man. He’s still kicking asses all over the place.” And while Legacy turned out to be Smith’s final studio recording (he died on February 8, 2005 at the age of 79), it stands as a fitting finale for a jazz immortal as well as a heartfelt homage to the man who revolutionized the Hammond organ 50 years ago.
While Smith’s passing marked the closing of a chapter in DeFrancesco’s career, he opens a new door with Organic Vibes, his ambitious follow-up to Legacy and seventh recording as a leader on Concord. With two bona fide jazz masters on board in perennial poll-winning vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and tenor sax great George Coleman, Joey moves beyond the traditional organ jazz trio concept by introducing more challenging arrangements and advanced harmonies to the proceedings. Also contributing throughout are DeFrancesco’s longtime drummer Byron "Wookie” Landham along with relative newcomers Jake Langley on guitar and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake, a recording artist in his own right (Joey played on his 2003 release, Lest We Forget).
The inspired choice of Hutcherson for this project came about from an early encounter the two had in Pittsburgh. "About three years ago we played together at the Craftsman’s Guild,” explains Joey. "It was a special band that was put together for that event. Of course, I’ve been listening to him forever and have always loved his playing on all those early '60s Blue Note records. We really hit it off good at this gig. Then last summer I was in Chicago and went to see Bobby at the Jazz Showcase. After hearing his set, I though to myself, ‘Man, I wanna make a record with this guy.’ I actually asked him that night and he said, ‘Sure, give me a call.’ I’m so pleased that it happened. Bobby is one of the true innovators in this music.”
Hutcherson emerged in the ’60s playing challenging modern jazz that often bordered on avant-garde. Along with Gary Burton, the other significant vibraphone innovator of that decade, Hutcherson helped modernize his instrument by redefining what could be done with it. His "new thing” approach, documented on groundbreaking recordings by such musical renegades as Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Joe Henderson, Grachan Moncur III, and Jackie McLean, as well as several key sessions of his own as a leader, including 1965’s brilliant Dialogues, took the vibes to a new and different place than had previously been explored by pioneers like Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo or bebop innovator Milt Jackson. He continued operating in such advanced free-bop territory through the ’70s and by the ’80s began recording in a more modern-mainstream bop mode. He spent much of the ’90s touring rather than leading sessions. In recent years, he has appeared as a special guest with the McCoy Tyner trio and performed at major festivals and nightclubs all over the world as the leader of his own quartet.
"I always loved the sound of organ and vibes together,” says DeFrancesco. "They’re very similar but that combination hasn’t really been done a lot. Larry Young made a record with Bobby called Street of Dreams [actually a 1964 Grant Green session for Blue Note that also featured drummer Elvin Jones], and I remember listening to that a lot when I was a kid. I wrote some different kind of stuff on this record and the thing with Bobby is a more harmonically exploring kind of thing.”
Organic Vibes opens with Joey’s dynamic, chops-busting "The Tackle,” taken at a burning tempo by the crew. Following a fusillade of unison lines in the head, it breaks down into a series of sizzling solos by Hutcherson, Blake on big toned, hard-swinging tenor sax, and DeFrancesco on organ, all blowing over the changes to the jazz standard, "What Is This Thing Called Love?” Says Joey, "Those are just great changes to play over. I just thought, ‘Instead of playing the regular melody I’m going to write a little arrangement with my own line.’ And that’s a pretty tricky line too. We went through it about three or four times to get it tight, and it came out nice.”
Hutcherson is next showcased on a soothing rendition of his own classic composition, "Little B’s Poem,” which also features Blake on flute. Joey lays down a velvety B-3 cushion beneath Bobby on the crystalline ballad "I Thought About You,” then George Coleman takes center stage with his robust tenor on a relaxed, swinging rendition of "Somewhere in the Night,” Billy May’s haunting theme from the old Naked City TV show from the early ’60s (which also appeared on the same 1964 Street of Dreams session with Hutcherson, Grant Green, Larry Young and Elvin Jones that Joey alluded to). Bobby, Joey, and Jake also turn in potent solos here.
Joey’s bluesy swinger "Down the Hatch” carries the daring intervallic leaps that recall Eddie Harris’s "Freedom Jazz Dance.” Blake and Langley hook up on those challenging unison lines while DeFrancesco double-times his solo in typically nonchalant fashion. An uptempo rendition of "Speak Low,” fueled by Joey’s burning bass lines, features some heated dueling between two generations of tenor players in Coleman, the former Miles Davis sideman, and Blake, currently a member of NBC’s Saturday Night Live Band. Joey and Wookie add some exhilarating exchanges between organ and drums on this burner.
Landham also contributes the beautiful ballad "JeNeane’s Dream,” which showcases Hutcherson’s luminous vibes work. Then the great vibraphonist is featured once again on a sublime reading of "My Foolish Heart,” underscored by Landham’s sensitive brushwork and DeFrancesco’s lush accompaniment. As Joey commented, "I didn't even bother soloing on that one because Bobby’s solo was so great.” The collection closes on a lyrical note with DeFrancesco’s "Colleen.” As he notes, "It’s a bossa nova feel and it's got a little Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter type of influence on the changes.”
On his past few outings, DeFrancesco has revealed continued growth and maturity as a player, composer, arranger,and producer. With Organic Vibes he takes another big step in that lifelong process of evolving as an artist.