Dr. Lonnie Smith
The marvelous Dr. Lonnie Smith stands tall as the foremost maestro of the Hammond B-3 organ and at the age of 75 still reigns as a master of innovation and experimentation. The 2017 NEA Jazz Master may say that all he does is simply old school, but Smith paints new hues across the canvas of tradition with aplomb, as evidenced on his spirited new live album All in My Mind. The album is his second for Blue Note since his 2016 return to the legendary label where he made a name for himself in the late-1960s, first as a sideman with saxophonist Lou Donaldson, and soon after as a leader with his own soul-jazz classics.
Smith may have been away from Blue Note for 46 years, but he perfectly fits in with the current mission of label president Don Was to present the future movements of jazz as well as honoring those who forged the tradition. “Dr. Lonnie Smith returns to the Blue Note label with an album that reveals the enduring appeal of organ soul,” raved The Wall Street Journal in a review of his 2016 homecoming album Evolution, adding that the album “showcases a variety of organ-soul stylings [and] demonstrates the versatility and currency of the style.”
A connoisseur of foot-tapping grooves, sophisticated harmonic voicings, indelible melodicism and ethereal atmospherics, Smith wanted to record All in My Mind in a live setting because, as he says, “It’s so hard to capture what I’m feeling at the moment in the studio. Hearing me live is catching me playing in the moment. It’s a good vibe. It’s a loving situation.”
A native of the Buffalo area in Western New York who presently lives in the warm climes of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Smith decided to roll tapes during his week-long 75th birthday celebration at one of his favorite clubs, the Jazz Standard in New York City, with his longtime trio of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake.
“My group is a brotherhood, a dedicated family,” Smith says. “They are the heartbeat of the music. They know what I’m trying to do, and they enhance what I play. I play in the moment all the time, and they adjust and are there for me.”
The resulting seven-track album opens with a powerful rendering of Wayne Shorter’s “JuJu” from the saxophonist’s 1965 Blue Note album of the same name. “I enjoy playing this,” Smith says. “I feel it. I love it. It means something to me.”
Next up is the soulful, lyrical “Devika,” composed by the late Dave Hubbard, a tenor saxophonist who linked up with the B-3 burner in years past. “This is an old tune,” says Smith. “When I played it with Dave in the past it had a faster feel. This is the first time I’ve recorded it, and I decided to change the feeling around it to give it an easier feel.”
Smith invited drummer Joe Dyson to replace Blake behind the kit for a playful jaunt through Paul Simon’s hit “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” (Dyson and Blake play alongside each other in Smith’s expanded Evolution band). Smith takes the tune on a nearly 10-minute joyride featuring a soaring B-3 solo. (he also notes that he once played a gig in Vegas with Simon & Garfunkel and Tony Bennett playing opposite.)
The slow and soulful take on Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” (most famously heard on the composer’s 1958 Prestige recording Mating Call with John Coltrane) features Smith’s mastery of dynamics, from the delicate hush of the opening to his climactic full-throttle demonstration of the B-3’s potential. “We love to play that tune,” he says. “It’s down my alley. We do it a lot and I’m in my world.”
A Smith original, “Alhambra,” is the longest and most complex tune of the set. The leader opens with his electronics, an atmospheric mix of synth brass and woodwind sounds that morphs into driving guitar and B-3 solos. “I love to take people on a ride,” Smith says of the tune, which he wrote a long time ago but never recorded. “I want to take the audience on a journey. People just love this song. You can hear it.”
Smith also offers up a new version of one of his oldest songs, “All in My Mind,” which he had recorded twice before on his Afrodesia (1975) and Funk Reaction (1977) albums. “It’s the right time to be singing this again,” he says, referring to the ruminative lyrics that long for a better world. Here Smith delivers the vocal in a duet with singer Alicia Olatuja, whose amazing vocal range and spirit lift the song to new heights.
Closing out the session is the ebullient swing through Freddie Hubbard’s “Up Jumped Spring,” a tune he wrote to celebrate the season when he was in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and later recorded on his own 1967 Backlash album. “There’s a hopeful note to this,” Smith says.
Smith reflects, “You play life, you tell your story. I know who I am, and that means so much.” As for his return to Blue Note, he singles out Don Was who produced Evolution and All in My Mind. “I’ve worked with producers who don’t understand the musicians they’re working with. But Don wants me to be myself, he understands and respects creativity. It’s a reminder of the old days when Frank Wolff used to be the same.”