Clock­work or­gan Jazz mu­si­cian Dr. Lon­nie Smith

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Bill Kohlhaase I For The New Mex­i­can

Lon­nie Smith speaks of an­gels and heav­enly voices when he talks about the be­gin­nings of his ca­reer. “Ev­ery­one has a few an­gels in their life. We don’t rec­og­nize them, maybe, at first. But they are the ones that keep you on the right road. I’ve had a lot of them. Lou Don­ald­son was one. Ge­orge Ben­son was an­other.” The idea of an­gelic guid­ance seems a nat­u­ral fit for the or­gan­ist who came up singing in the church, and whose trade­marks are now a stately beard and hand­some, sculpted tur­ban. Smith, who ap­pears with his group Evo­lu­tion on Satur­day, July 30, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter as part of the New Mex­ico Jazz Fes­ti­val, says his main an­gel was the late Art Ku­bera, a one-time big band leader and mu­sic store owner in Smith’s home­town of Buf­falo, New York. Ku­bera had a rep­u­ta­tion for gen­eros­ity among lo­cal mu­si­cians. Though he’s told it dozens of times be­fore, Smith doesn’t need to be coaxed to tell the story of how he came by his first Ham­mond B-3 or­gan. “I went in to Ku­bera’s Mu­sic Store ev­ery day and sat at the or­gan un­til clos­ing time. And one day, Art comes up to me and says, ‘I have to ask you a ques­tion. Why do you come in here ev­ery day and play the or­gan?’ And I said, ‘Sir, if I had an in­stru­ment, I could make a liv­ing.’ I was sin­cere about that. One day I was in there and he closed the store and he took me back to the house and there was an or­gan, a Ham­mond B-3. And in your mind, you can pic­ture it, like the open­ing up of a Bi­ble in a movie, the sun rays com­ing up and the heav­enly voices. And Art said, if you can move it, you can have it.” Smith rounded up a pickup truck and the mus­cle to lift the heavy in­stru­ment and, in a driv­ing snow­storm — “It’s like Alaska up there in Buf­falo,” he told us — took it home.

Once he learned to work the Ham­mond’s stops — draw­bars on the in­stru­ment that con­trol the sound the or­gan pro­duces — things moved quickly. Smith was a reg­u­lar at Buf­falo’s Pine Grill, a restau­rant that fea­tured soul-jazz com­bos. It’s where Smith was heard by or­gan­ist Jack McDuff, who even­tu­ally con­nected him with gui­tarist Ben­son and sax­o­phon­ist Don­ald­son. The three, with drum­mer Leo Smith, recorded Al­li­ga­tor Booga­loo un­der Don­ald­son’s lead­er­ship for the Blue Note la­bel in 1967. Columbia Records took note of Smith’s work with Don­ald­son and signed him to record, re­sult­ing in the re­lease of Smith’s first disc as a leader, Finger-Lickin’ Good. “Things were mov­ing clock­wise for me,” Smith ex­plained. But his col­leagues at Blue Note wanted him with them. “[Pi­anist] Duke Pear­son called me, [Blue Note ex­ec­u­tive Fran­cis] Wolff called me and they said, hey, we want you with us over here. I didn’t be­lieve it, tried not to get ex­cited un­til it was done. Life has too many let­downs.” The re­sult­ing deal led to Smith’s first Blue Note record­ings: Think! (with trum­peter Lee Mor­gan and sax­o­phon­ist David “Fat­head” New­man), fol­lowed by Turn­ing Point, and

Move Your Hand, all re­leased at the tail end of the ’60s. Smith spoke of the pride he feels hav­ing worked at the la­bel’s sto­ried En­gle­wood Cliffs, New Jer­sey stu­dio with record­ing en­gi­neer Rudy Van Gelder. “No one had that Van Gelder sound. He did those record­ings in three to six hours and that was it. You just go in there and call the tune. To­day, they can spend months, even years at a time putting it to­gether. It’s like Franken­stein, all the parts pasted to­gether. Some­thing isn’t played right? Don’t worry, they can fix it. Back then, you make a mis­take? Leave it. That’s you, you’re hu­man, you’re not sup­posed to be per­fect. That’s what you did, have a laugh, keep on go­ing.”

With its fa­mous Aretha Franklin ti­tle tune, Think! her­alded a prac­tice — cov­er­ing pop tunes of all sorts — that Smith has uti­lized through­out his ca­reer. The prac­tice isn’t ex­clu­sive to Smith. The Ham­mond or­gan is an es­pe­cially apt in­stru­ment for mu­sic with strong and se­duc­tive rhythms. And jazz mu­si­cians have mined pop mu­sic long be­fore rock ’n’ roll. (With his propul­sive, in-the-groove B-3 solo, Smith sal­vages an oth­er­wise tepid ver­sion of “Ode To Billy Joe” from Don­ald­son’s 1967 re­lease Mr. Shing-A-Ling.) But Smith has shown un­usual, wide-rang­ing taste in his choice of ma­te­rial. Like many jazz mu­si­cians, he’s cov­ered the Bea­tles, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hen­drix. But he’s also injected his groove and shout style into the Eury­th­mics (“Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”) and he’s recorded an en­tire al­bum of Beck’s mu­sic, Booga­loo To Beck .“I love that mu­sic. I love all kinds of mu­sic. I do those tunes be­cause I love them. I hear some­thing in them. A sym­phonic orches­tra, Me­tal­lica; I hear all of it. Once I start play­ing a phrase or two from mu­sic like that, I can just feel where to go.”

Be­gin­ning in the 1970s, af­ter leav­ing what re­mained of Blue Note af­ter Fran­cis Wolff’s death, Smith recorded a num­ber of discs in­clud­ing Afro-De­sia, with gui­tarist Ben­son and a young Joe Lo­vano on sax, The

Tur­bana­tor, and, in 2006, Jun­gle Soul. The con­stant in all this mu­sic is the groove, that un­de­fin­able qual­ity that must be felt to be un­der­stood. Mu­si­cians speak of “find­ing” the groove. It doesn’t only come from back­beat and the strong rhythms of clas­sic R&B. Lis­ten to Smith’s ver­sion of “Wil­low Weep For Me” from Jun­gle

Soul, done at a swift, swirling waltz tempo in which one can imag­ine Fred As­taire cir­cling madly with Gin­ger Rogers, both in for­mal­wear, to Dr. Lon­nie’s driv­ing groove. Or hear Ed­die Har­ris’ “Free­dom Jazz Dance” from the same record­ing, Har­ris’ post-bop an­them mel­lowed out with a re­laxed shing-a-ling groove. Then com­pare it with the ti­tle tune from

Al­li­ga­tor Booga­loo. It’s clear that Smith has known where to find it since the be­gin­ning of his ca­reer.

Af­ter a string of pop­u­lar record­ings for Mu­sic Masters, Pal­metto, and Pil­grim­age la­bels, Blue Note again came call­ing. “Things were still mov­ing clock­wise,” Smith said. When Don Was, leader of rock band Was (Not Was), was named head of Blue Note in 2012, he de­cided that Smith should be a part of the la­bel’s re­vival. “It’s like I never re­ally left,” Smith said. “Don Was knows mu­sic and he knows what he wants. He wants me, the mu­si­cian, he wants the spirit in there and he don’t want me to fake it. He gives you the free­dom.” Fit­tingly, Smith’s lat­est re­lease for Blue Note, Evo­lu­tion, in­cludes his “Afrode­sia,” as well as other orig­i­nals and stan­dards from Th­elo­nious Monk and Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein. New-thing key­boardist Robert Glasper makes an ap­pear­ance, as well as a now well-known Joe Lo­vano. “Like I said,” Smith chuck­les, “clock­wise.”

Smith, now seventy-four, has re­cently been granted one of jazz’s great­est honors. He’s on the list of 2017 de­signees to re­ceive the Na­tional En­dow­ment For the Arts Jazz Masters award. “That’s as highly rec­og­nized as one can get in our field,” he said proudly. “The thing about it is that you’re among your friends and peers. You did pretty well for your­self if that’s the com­pany you’re in. That means a lot.”

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