There’s only ever been a scant few acknowledged masters of the Hammond B-3 organ in jazz at any given time. So few, in fact, that when one leaves the scene — as in 2005, when the great Jimmy Smith passed away — aficionados have been left to wonder whether the instrument has a future in jazz at all.
That questioning has nothing to do with a lack of players, of course. Invented in the 1930s and marketed to churches, where it offered a portable, affordable alternative to the grand wind organs, the Hammond is played with joy and reverence across the land on Sundays. And in jazz, its shaky spot in the canon reflects decisions by record companies over the years — for instance in the 1970s, when organ-led records were lumped under the rubric “soul-jazz” — more than any dearth of creative players, then or now.
“Record companies pigeonholed them. But let’s face it, guys are playing the organ,” says Joey DeFrancesco, perhaps the best known B-3 player in jazz today. “They still call them soul-jazz records. But isn’t all jazz soul?”
That evidence (from the “Is the Pope Catholic?” school of rhetorical query) has been career fuel for DeFrancesco, 41, who played as a teen in Miles Davis’s band, and later with John McLaughlin. In something of a passing of the torch, he recorded with Smith days before the latter died. On his records as a leader, DeFrancesco favors straight-ahead jazz with a warm embrace of core values: standards, ballads, the blues, swing.
All of which comes together in not just the music but also the personnel of a special trio that DeFrancesco put together last year, and that he brings to Scullers for two nights this weekend.
It features the eminent guitarist Larry Coryell, the polymath known particularly for his contributions to fusion in the early 1970s, and the even more eminent drummer Jimmy Cobb, who played with Davis and John Coltrane in the late 1950s and is the last living player from the “Kind of Blue” recording.
This weekend’s dates and previous ones last year by the three men have been billed as a tribute to Smith and guitar great Wes Montgomery, who had a strong collaboration in the 1960s. But DeFrancesco cautions not to read too much into the concept, which he says was a promoter’s idea, not the artists’ intention.
“Everybody knows I’m very influenced by Jimmy Smith,” DeFrancesco says. “He’s very much the creator of the style that I play in. And of course Wes Montgomery influenced a lot of stuff that Larry has done, and Jimmy played with Wes. But with this lineup, these guys in the group — we’re just three guys who wanted to play together and are interested in similar things.”
Those interests shine forth on “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” the album the trio made last year, and that provides much of the material for their live gigs. It features songs associated with Johnny Mathis (the title track), Sonny Rollins (“Wagon Wheels”), Benny Golson (“Five Spot After Dark”) and Duke Ellington (“Solitude”).
There’s also a Coryell tune named for DeFrancesco, “Joey D,” and an expansive blues number titled “JLJ” after the artists’ initials, and that serves a vigorous group signature and album finale. And on the standard “Old Folks,” DeFrancesco switches to trumpet and plays in a muted, melancholy vein that’s frank in its evocation of Davis.
History hovers over this date in more than one way. The trio recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in New Jersey, which hosted rafts of important Prestige and Blue Note sessions in the 1950s and 1960s, on the studio’s original instruments.
And there’s the generational exchange, of course, in which DeFrancesco sought out the two elder players and proposed a program of songs that mostly predate his birth.
“I love these guys,” DeFrancesco says. “I’ve always been a big believer in tipping your hat to the legends of the music, and wanting to do projects with them. They still have a lot to talk about on their instruments.”
Cobb, still a prolific performer at 83, returns the compliment. “Joey is a young boy with an old mind,” Cobb says. “He likes all of the stuff from the old days — he’s very back in there, and he plays as good as they did.”
Yet for all the history, what makes this collaboration click is the immediacy of the music itself — an enduring trait that the Hammond organ fosters, and that DeFrancesco attributes to the instrument’s church roots and working-class setting.
“It was always a blue-collar worker’s music,” he says. “People worked all day and at the end of the week, they wanted to feel good. That’s one of the reasons it’s played in the church. There’s something about the sound of the organ itself that makes people feel good.”
Siddhartha Mitter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.