It’s not every day you see a Hammond B-3 organ immersed in a jazz orchestra, but that’s exactly what’s happening at Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 17–18 in Rose Theater, as living legend organist Joey DeFrancesco joins forces with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
DeFrancesco is quick to correct me as I praise the Hammond B-3 for its strong, commanding sound in the jazz arena. “I’m an organist first,” he explains. “It was in my house. My father plays, and as a kid hearing it for the first time I was just drawn to it. I would listen to his records. It was just an attraction.”
Raised in Philadelphia, a city known for the incredible jazz musicians it has produced, DeFrancesco began playing organ at the age of four. It was a natural musical gift. His father played the organ, and the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. “My dad was my first influence, really. I loved all the main cats at the time—we had the a nice collection of LPs… Jimmy Smith of course, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson, Groove Holmes, Shirley Scott, Trudy Pitts… all the people from that era. I still listen to and love all that. That was the organ influence, but I was influenced by all the other instruments too. We had a few Oscar Peterson records and, of course, some Miles Davis records and Coltrane. All that stuff is the same thing to me; they’re just playing different instruments, but the music part hits me the same way.”
His father brought him to gigs in Philadelphia, exposing him to what would become his lifeline. There he sat in with Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. His talents reached beyond the organ, and he became proficient on the trumpet as well. DeFrancesco’s emergence in the 1980s came at a time when the organ had all but disappeared from the jazz circuit. “There’s actually quite a few organ players out on the scene today. You just have to look at the DownBeat polls now, and there’s two big rows of organists. There’s just as many names in that category as there are with the other instruments. My approach has been a big influence on this generation of organ players.”
What does Joey have to say to young, upcoming musicians? “The advice is to listen and pay attention as much as possible. There’s so much music available out there nowadays. There’s no excuse to not listen. There’s videos and releases and so much history. The best thing is to listen to all these things and to play with your peers, and go out and hear as many people as you can, and play with the best musicians that you can… and stay relaxed and groove.”
DeFrancesco has recorded and/or toured with his own groups as well as with a wide and varied group of folks from Ray Charles to Van Morrison. “There’s so many of them, and it’s hard to remember them all. I’ve been very fortunate. Of course, Miles Davis, right?! That’s at the top of the list. I got to play with a lot of my idols; pretty much all the ones I mentioned I shared the stage with at one point or another. Jimmy Smith, George Coleman, Frank Wess, David Newman, Fat Head Newman, Hank Mobley, Pharoah Sanders… so I’ve been really blessed.”
The four-time Grammy Award nominee has more than 30 recordings as a leader and has won countless Jazz Journalists Association awards and other accolades worldwide. He was inducted into the inaugural Hammond Organ Hall of Fame in 2014, the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame in 2016, and has topped the DownBeat Critics Polls 11 times in the past 15 years and the Readers Poll every year since 2005. DeFrancesco hosts a weekly show on SiriusXM’s Real Jazz channel called “Organized.” His 2019 release on Mack Avenue Records is entitled In the Key of the Universe.
When I spoke with Joey, he had just returned from a long plane ride after performing in Japan, and he was now getting ready for a gig in a New York City jazz club that night. “It’s always great to go to Japan. The appreciation for all of the arts there is at such a high level. It’s a pleasure to be there. I love it. I love touring. Sometimes you need a minute to take a breath, but the music part is easy. The music part is what it’s all about. The rest of it is all the travel and all those things, that’s the hard part. The music is just joy. I love playing all the venues… big, small, I try find an intimacy in the big rooms too, because you can play with the music and the vibe, especially playing at Jazz Lincoln Center! All of those rooms have such a good vibe.”
DeFrancesco makes his debut performance with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in this special two-day run in Rose Theater, with music direction by JLCO trombonist Vincent Gardner. “The music that we’re playing is two groups of music,” DeFrancesco explains. “One of them is the Jimmy Smith and Oliver Nelson arrangements of Peter and the Wolf, and the other is Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. While Bill Davis played organ on the original recording, he played only on one cut, but we’re playing all of it, and we’re going to open it up! It’s really cool because the Peter and the Wolf record was never really talked about much. It wasn’t one of the biggest records for Jimmy Smith, but it’s got some very interesting arrangements, and Oliver Nelson is such a killer arranger. To play with that band was so great and tight. It was happenin’! It’s gonna be really great playing with the JLCO! So much fun and inspiration. I can’t wait. I’m excited about it.”
Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.