Saturday Oct 20

Dr. Lonnie Smith: today's incredible jazz organist

Dr. Lonnie Smith is the most inspiring, exciting, and informative organist working in the jazz idiom today.  That's not just my opinion.  It's shared by the general membership of the Jazz Journalists Association who have identified Dr. Smith as Jazz Organist of the Year five times in the past 10 years.

In spite of this and in spite of hearing him on so many CDs under both his own name and those of others, his name and his organizing skills haven't come quickly to mind when people ask me about favorite musicians and favored CDs.

Spiral has changed that for me.  I predict it will do the same for you if your personal list of top-shelf jazz organists--in fact jazz musicians--doesn't have Dr. Smith at the very top.

I happened upon this CD very much by accident.  If you care about the details, they're over on my blog.  The short of it is that Dr. Smith's fresh reading of Slide Hampton's classic "A Frame for the Blues" caught my ear during a bit of late night radio listening.

It's one of my favorite compositions and I knew that I needed to get the CD which held this new and moving version.  I found that Amazon.com would shoot me and MP3 file of the performance for all of 89 cents.  But when I looked at the track list for full session (which is available both on CD and LP), I knew I needed to have the real, uncompressed thing.

Some of those tracks are Jimmy Smith's "Mellow Moods" from a joint date with Wes Montgomery on Verve, "I've Never Been in Love Before" from Guys and Dolls, Rodgers and Hart's "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," "Sweet and Lovely" which Gus Arnheim wrote, which rose to a #1 hit for him in 1931, and which any number of jazz musicians quite rightly go to for a ballad tune with spring steel lurking under a soft exterior, the Japanese pop hit that's called "Sukiyaki" over here, pianist Harold Mabern's programmatic "Beehive," and the disc's title tune written by Dr. Smith himself.  (You can get that one free in MP3 form at Amazon.com.)

These all are performed to perfection by Dr. Smith's working trio that includes Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar and Jamire Williams on drums.  It's a rare treat these days to get a full session by a real jazz group that tours together and presumably performs live the tunes that are on a CD.

Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio

After the mere presence of "A Frame For the Blues," the most surprising track on the disc is "I Didn't Know What Time It Was" which crackles over a Latinesque boogaloo sort of rhythm.  And then there's "I've Never Been In Love Before" one which the trio delivers the first note of each A-section of the exposition with a pungent punch that pulls the listener deep into the tune in an instant.  (Bassist Omer Avital's group made a similar move on that same first note on the Impulse Jazz Underground - Live at Small's CD in 1997.)

The sound on the Spiral CD is as moving and as wonderfully crafted as the music itself.  It's up close and personal with minimal sweetening.  In my view, the goal of audio recording and reproduction is to create in the listener at home the sorts of emotional and intellectual responses that he or she might experience in the presence of the musicians themselves.  A carefully done dry recording is, in my view, more likely to achieve that result than one with a lot of phony echo and other effects.  Producer-engineer Matt Balitsaris has done precisely that with Dr. Lonnie Smith's music on Spiral.

Get a copy.

Photo of Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio in performance at Boulder Theater © 2009 Joshua Elioseff and Dancer Productions (www.dancerproductions.com).  Used with permission.