Cutter’s Way


The Hammond organ comes from the church, where unity matters and rugged individualism doesn’t. So why praise one organist at the expense of others? Well, because even in a jazz world that values difference and welcomes diversity, there’s room for comparison. Cutting contests have been part of the music’s history since Satchmo’s trumpet trumped King Oliver’s during shouting matches in the 1920s. If jazz is America’s most democratic music, democratic rules apply—speak until someone else speaks louder, then scream.

Joey DeFrancesco’s recent CDs Keepers of the Flame and The Philadelphia Connection purportedly pay tribute to organists Charles Earland and Don Patterson, reducing the old guys’ albums to interesting historical accounts of how people used to play keyboard before DeFrancesco updated their techniques, elaborated their ideas, and became modern jazz’s most versatile organist. On Keepers of the Flame‘s “Oleo,” a Sonny Rollins tune once turned hypnotic groover by Patterson, DeFrancesco balances lean creativity with fatty excess, and funk with finesse. On Philadelphia‘s “Little Shannon” and “Blue Don,” he accelerates in tempo with so much tension in his locked-down left hand and nervous right that release seems unimaginable. But he resolves ideas naturally by dropping octaves, raising volume, and pulling stops. The difference between DeFrancesco’s volatility and Medeski’s is the bib that Martin and Wood should tie around Medeski’s neck to catch the cosmic drool.

Detractors who call DeFrancesco a virtuoso with fast fingers but few ideas should check out his three-note passages from “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” in his “Perdido” solo. Then call him a trickster, or a hyper-intellectual, but not a rote speedster. And those unimpressed by million-note solos should note his subtle textures and listener-friendly blues that simmer in high registers and brood in low. He’s Hammond’s gift to hard bop. And he’s reinstating a basic jazz aesthetic—competition.

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