Pipe Dreams: The Soul and Spirit of Jazz Organ


When we think of the organ in jazz, the first name that often comes to mind is the late, great Jimmy Smith, who, though by no means the first to place the instrument at the fore, helped popularize the Hammond B-3 in the mid-1950s with a string of unforgettable albums, and album covers, on the Blue Note label. The organ, long associated with two sanctified (if sullied) American institutions — church and baseball — was central to what became known as soul jazz.

Other organists, with their own distinct voicings, would follow — Johnny “Hammond” Smith, Jack McDuff, Larry Young, Reuben Wilson — but it’s another Smith, Dr. Lonnie Smith, who, more than anyone, has kept that tradition simmering. He made his first album, Finger Lickin’ Good, for Columbia in 1967, but, like Jimmy Smith, established himself at Blue Note, first on Lou Donaldson’s 1967 Alligator Bogaloo (as uproariously fun as it sounds) and then as a leader through the rest of the Sixties. Decades later, he returned to Blue Note with 2016’s Evolution (his version of “My Favorite Things” is bested only by John Coltrane’s), and has followed that up with All in My Mind, out on Friday, also on Blue Note.

It’s a live album, recorded last year during a trio engagement for Smith’s 75th birthday at the Jazz Standard, where he’ll perform once more from January 11 to 14. It begins with the driving hard bop of Wayne Shorter’s “JuJu,” then roams from the romanticism of Tadd Dameron’s “On a Misty Night” to Freddie Hubbard’s up-tempo “Up Jumped Spring” and even to a sly, re-energized take on Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” where drummer Joe Dyson sits in.

Smith, named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts last year, wrote the album’s title track in 1975, by then immersed in the jazz-funk of the era. In his new arrangement, slowed down and with the lyric delivered by the poised young singer Alicia Olatuja — who performed at President Obama’s second inauguration as a featured soloist with the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir — it sounds like a timeless spiritual.

Smith’s core triomates — the younger drummer Johnathan Blake and guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg — make for kindred spirits, despite the thirty-year-plus age difference. His interplay with Kreisberg is particularly striking and underscores how sublimely the organ and guitar have complemented each other over the decades: Jimmy Smith used Quentin Warren, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, and, later in his career in the 1990s, Mark Whitfield; Johnny “Hammond” often partnered with Thornel Schwartz; Jack McDuff famously gave a young George Benson his start. Dr. Lonnie Smith has, yet again, cooked up that holy elixir.

Kit Downes comes at the organ from an entirely different angle. The 31-year-old from England, whose new album, Obsidian, is out next week from ECM, doesn’t use a guitarist or, for that matter, hardly anyone else. Nor does he use a Hammond B-3, preferring instead three different church organs — of different sizes, dynamics, and sound — from around the U.K., one from London’s Union Chapel, which dates back to 1877, and two more from the Suffolk countryside, which had been largely forgotten. As a young man, Downes sang in a church choir, took lessons with the organist, and eventually played at services. Now, if solo organ sounds as if it’s an effort — like sitting through a sermon, or through a five-hour Yankee–Red Sox game—in his hands, it’s startlingly original.

Pieces like “Kings” and “Black Is the Colour” have a pulsating grandiosity, while “Rings of Saturn” — likely a nod to the 1995 novel by W.G. Sebald, whose protagonist walked through the very Suffolk countryside where Downes recorded it — is still, almost ghostlike. There’s a haunting, ethereal quality that pervades throughout. And though Downes has cited the twentieth-century French composer, improviser, and organist Olivier Messiaen as an influence — makes sense, since he does all of the above — at times there are echoes of the minimalist Terry Riley, especially in “Modern Gods,” the only piece on which he uses an accompanist, the tenor saxophonist Tom Challenger, who collaborates frequently with Downes. It recalls moments of the saxophone-organ duo in Riley’s 1972 “Happy Ending.”

Is Obsidian a jazz album? It’s not Wild Bill Davis, Jimmy Smith, or Lonnie Smith, but if it’s not soul-jazz, it does have soul. He was first turned on to the piano, according to the liner notes, by listening to Oscar Peterson, and is now fully entrenched in the British jazz scene; he dedicates the album to John Taylor, the English jazz pianist who died in 2015. Anyway, call it what you want. I’ll call it quietly riveting. In a world going to hell, Kit Downes is playing for the angels — what’s left of them.

Dr. Lonnie Smith will perform at the Jazz Standard January 11–14.

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