Jazz Notes: Finger Lickin’ Soul Jazz by Young-Forever Hammond B-3 Bomber Dr. Lonnie Smith
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor, June 9, 2016
These days, it’s all about going home for 73-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith, jazz’s preeminent Hammond B-3 organist, in light of his long-in-coming return after 45 years to Blue Note Records, the label that essentially launched his career, for his spanking new recording, Evolution. It’s a masterwork of Smith’s trademark accent marks, finesse caresses, bright sparks and jagged lines. Welcome back, indeed.
“It’s like those old western movies where the cowboys brand the cattle,” the amiable Smith says. “Blue Note has always been in my blood. It’s like good wine that has lasted for all these years. When they called me, I was very pleased to be back in their company. After all, Blue Note and jazz is like Motown and soul. Imagine how a label like Blue Note stood the test of time and recorded all these great musicians. For it to still be here and for me to still be here, well, it’s an honor.”
A master of foot-tapping grooves, sophisticated harmonic voicings and indelible melodicism—not to mention his bold and mysterious synthesizer bursts on his Korg—Dr. Lonnie represents yet another Blue Note artist from yesteryear to rejoin the classic label with vital new music, along with such legends as Wayne Shorter, Bobby Hutcherson and Charles Lloyd. Smith recorded five “finger lickin’ good” (actually the name of his 1968 Columbia debut before joining Blue Note the following year) soul jazz albums from 1969 to 1970.
Blue Note president Don Was signed Smith and produced Evolution, which is a robust and spirited collection of seven tunes, including fresh takes on his favorite originals and standard covers as well as brand-new excursions that he had never recorded before.
A native of Detroit where Smith enjoyed a huge soul jazz following, Was became reacquainted with the B-3 bomber’s prowess at his appearance at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 2013, saying that he was playing these “incredible, exciting grooves and he was totally rocking the place…he came back for an encore and started slapping his walking stick to create these insane, wah-wah polyrhythms…he was awesome—clearly in peak form and without peer.”
Throughout his career Dr. Lonnie has been magnificent in the beat, starting in the mid ‘60s with a r&b drive alongside George Benson and most famously linking up with Lou Donaldson, then recording with Blue Note, to play alongside the saxophonist on his 1967 hit album Alligator Bogaloo. That led him into the Blue Note stable, signed by label founder Alfred Lion, who Was says “was always looking for a good groove…that’s pretty much a benchmark of Blue Note’s records. The musicians knew that if they saw him doing his little dance in the control room that the take was probably a keeper.”
Was notes that what “Alligator Bogaloo” as a song represents is a “a big leap up the Evolutionary Groove Ladder…in the groove continuum that runs from Albert Ammons to Robert Glasper.”
Speaking of Glasper, jazz’s foremost keyboardist, he guests on piano on Evolution’s opening track, the catchy big-phat grooving tune “Play It Back” that had originally been recorded on Smith’s fifth Blue Note album, Live at Club Mozambique, a date from 1970 that wasn’t released by the label until 1995. Glasper catches the groove on the acoustic piano while the double drums enlarge the beat and drive the tune and the organist zips into funky B-3 licks. “People keep asking me to play this song, so I can’t get away from it,” Smith says. “It’s different than the original because I play with a spontaneous feeling. I had never met Robert before, but it was wonderful. It really fit. We melded together.”
After leaving Blue Note, the Doctor continued his journey in the land of soul jazz, including a series of superb recordings during the aughts for Palmetto. Earlier in 2015 when he was touring music from the new album in clubs, The New York Times caught up with him in the city’s Jazz Standard and remarked: “[Smith] really seems to be up to something bigger than music, and older, and deeper. An hour and a quarter in his presence, and you start thinking about the nature of time, ancestors, the circulatory system. His tunes are relatively simple and his gigs are small-club casual, but they are done with so much care and attention that they seem to slow down the heart rate.”
For his six-night stand at Jazz Standard, Smith will play three nights with his longtime trio comprised of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake. The rest of the week will feature Smith’s Evolution septet including his trio and other band mates from the recording: trumpeter Maurice Brown, saxophonist John Ellis and drummer Joe Dyson. Special guest will be vocalist Alicia Olatuja.
The Doctor, in talking about his unique organ style, says, “It’s an extension of my being. It’s a part of my lens. It breathes for me; it speaks for me. I feel every bit of the organ. It’s like electricity—a fire that goes through my body. You can feel it vibrate. There’s nothing like it. It lifts me up, it crawls through the pores of the room.”