Jazz Notes: The Young Legend of the Hammond B-3—Joey DeFrancesco Continues to Revitalize the Power and Grace of the Organ in Jazz With His New Album ‘Project Freedom’
By Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor ZEALnyc, April 12, 2017
The first time I saw Joey DeFrancesco play the Hammond B-3 organ he was 22 and performing the globe with the electrifying guitarist John McLaughlin’s trio called The Free Spirits. The band, including volcanic drummer Dennis Chambers, settled into an evening at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in 1994 at the beginning of a four-year tour. I knew McLaughlin, having seen him in 1975 with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but the pure revelation of the show at hand was how fast and dazzling DeFrancesco was on the keys—and how he kept up with the speed and intensity of the leader. I knew I was witnessing the dawning of a vital new velocity in jazz on what was considered to be a dinosaur instrument.
A select few had already experienced DeFrancesco, who came from a family of musicians in Philadelphia (his grandfather was a saxophonist and his father “Papa” DeFrancesco was also an organist) and who was onstage at the age of 4. By the next year the young prodigy knew the music verbatim of the master of Hammond B-3, Jimmy Smith (he has a photo documenting meeting him when he was 7). Side note: In 1995, I interviewed Smith at his home outside Sacramento for a DownBeat feature and asked him what he thought of DeFrancesco. He scoffed and growled that he was nothing and that he was stealing all his licks and pretending to be the king of the instrument he had longed reigned over.
Actually Smith eventually became friends and a collaborator with DeFrancesco, and if he couldn’t admit it, many of the B-3 family did: The youngster has revitalized the appeal of the instrument after it had been cast aside as an oldster instrument of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. His self-taught organ prowess had resuscitated the B-3 when he was 16 and recording his 1989 Columbia debut, All of Me. When I talked with him recently before he played a week at Birdland, he said that he was hardly a young legend. “I’m only 45 and I’ve been doing this for 41 years,” he said. “I was playing with Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley when I was 10, and then I played with Miles Davis and John McLaughlin when I was still just a kid.”
After seeing him perform on a Philadelphia TV show honoring Miles, the trumpeter contacted him—still a teenager to join his band in 1988 to join him on a five-week European electric and funky tour. “As a kid I didn’t want to play in a band like Miles had, but my love for Miles made it something else,” the born-and-bred bebopper said. “And once I got into the music, I realized it was just as sophisticated as anything else he had done before.” He even got inspired to play the trumpet, which Miles approved of and that DeFrancesco still tours with in his own sets.
Fast-forward over the course of his career of more than 30 albums (including appearing on Miles’s Amandla album in 1989, recording with The Free Spirits and even linking up with Smith in the B-3 king’s latter days), and the Phoenix-based DeFrancesco is up to new vistas on his new album, Project Freedom. It’s his debut with Mack Avenue Records and his first outing with a quartet vs. a trio. “I love all my albums,” he said. “But this one means a little bit more to me.”
He added: “It’s difficult to talk about without it sounding like some giant egotistical thing. But really, I’ve done almost everything with the B-3 musically and what I can get out of it sound-wise. All the music that preceded me and influenced me forms the tradition in my music. It’s the language we use to communicate with each other. But there’s so much more…I’ve gotten to the place where I want to explore different musical ideas and come up with more colors, but still based in the blues and I’m still swinging. But there’s more that I want to add to it where no one else has gone before. I don’t ever want to get bored. The older I get the more I can understand why Miles changed so much.”
While these days he’s been listening to more avant-garde artists like trumpet player Bill Dixon and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders for their sense of freedom, DeFrancesco crafted his own sensibility of free play on Project Freedom, featuring his hot band of tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, guitarist Dan Wilson, drummer Jason Brown that he’s dubbed The People.”
A highlight of the album is the fiery original, “The Unifier,” where DeFrancesco hooked up a VOX wah-wah pedal to the organ, which he admits has been done before. “But the way I’m using it is so different,” he said. “It’s only hooked up to the upper manual, while the bottom and the bass are still steady. So it sounds a lot like a Moog. A lot of people don’t know it’s an organ. That’s one of the things that I’m digging now—adding more effects to the actual organ sound. Really it’s unlimited. I’m just starting to touch on this. But I don’t want people to think that I’ve really lost my mind. So I’m easing it in.”
Along the way, DeFrancesco also delivers a churchy cover of the gospel hymnal standard “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (aka “The Black American National Anthem”); cools out with organ grit on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”; and infuses with funk “So Near, So Far” from Miles Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven.
In regards to The People project, it’s fueled with politics—not just on the outward scope of the Beltway but also with the B-3 itself. A blogger not long ago complained about the state of the organ because it’s become a digital instrument vs. the tone wheel mechanism of the past.
DeFrancesco shrugs, saying that the Hammond company stopped building the tone wheel instrument in 1975 and then was bought by Suzuki which built the digital Hammond New B-3. “All the features look the same,” said DeFrancesco. “If I had it here, people wouldn’t know the difference. The old B-3 was a mechanical device, built by hand, and had 96 little wheels spinning with a magnet coil in front of it. Those are the tone wheels and that’s what makes the sound waves. It was built originally to be a replacement for a pipe organ in church. But no one ever dreamed of what we could do on that little instrument. I know it in and out. I’ve done things on it that no one had done before.”
He records with his own authentic custom vintage B-3 and even at Birdland he played a vintage B-3 that he sold to club owner John Valenti and that he figures is probably worth $65,000 today. It was like being back home for the organist. “I bought it from a guy in Boston, and with all the touring I was doing decided to leave it here so that when I came to town I could use it,” he said. “John let me leave it here, then I decided to sell it to him so other bands needing a B-3 could play it.” (No telling yet if The B-3 wiz will be having the instrument transported over to Jazz Standard, but one hopes so.)
As for any social undercurrent in Project Freedom, DeFrancesco says that real politics is not his intent. “Obviously with the current situation in the world and how messed up people are, how much Americans are hated and the police shootings at home, we go and play music which is when peace happens,“ he said. “Music is the unifier. This is our very small part. When I set out on that theme, music started pouring out of me, and ‘the people’ concept—the band name and the audience—is about freedom to do things in your life without being judged or ridiculed.”
But what about Project Freedom being a direct response to the presidential drama? “We didn’t think about that at all,” he said. “This was more from my heart, like why can’t we all get together? It’s unintentional related to the election, but still you think of the environment you’re in, like Lennon and Dylan did. They responded. As a jazz musician, it’s wide open. With all that’s involved with being in that world, freedom and peace still has to be a part of this. And that’s why this is Project Freedom, and I’m hoping for everyone to love each other a little more.”
Joey DeFrancesco and The People play at Jazz Standard, April 20-23.
Cover: Joey DeFrancesco; courtesy of the artist.