Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dr. Lonnie Smith CD Review - DownBeat

Dr. Lonnie Smith Octet
In the Beginning, Volumes 1 & 2
Pilgrimage Recording 002
**** 1/2

Play the hits! That’s how the cliché goes, right? Everyone’s favorite turbanded master of the Hammond B3 has played a lot of hits since he named his 1968 Blue Note debut “Think!” after the Aretha Franklin song from the same year. Smith made a name for himself in soul-jazz’s heyday covering omnipresent radio hits, putting his personal stamp on tunes by Blood, Sweat & Tears and Donovan, finally taking the concept to the extreme with an entire album of Beck songs in 2003. The closest Smith gets to any pop covers on this album is a sly reference to the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” in the midst of a solo. Instead, this twelve track, two-disc set is a reassessment of Smith’s self-penned hits, drawn from his first few albums and performed with a smoking octet that help to build a very satisfying retrospective.

There is a train of thought in the jazz world about artistic integrity and constantly moving forward that completely abhors the idea of revisiting anything older than an hour ago and frequently ignores the idea of a paying audience looking for a good time. The biggest success of this album is that Smith is still moving forward while keeping the live audience hooting and hollering. This audience’s energy seems to push the band frequently into quicker tempos and greasier funk than the original recordings even if some of them, like “Move Your Hand,” were released as live recordings in the first place.

What Smith proves with this reflection is that he has still got the spark. These performances are imbued with an excitement and recklessness. The nearly fifteen minute long “Mama Wailer/Hola Muñeca” medley burns white hot with Smith midway through jamming onto a thick, piercing cluster for eight measures as conguero Little Johnny Rivero propels the insanity further out. “Aw Shucks” hits the other end of the spectrum, simmering with greasy soul. Guitarist Ed Cherry slices and dices on one side of the mix while drummer Jonathan Blake keeps the boil perfectly under control. Through it all the four member horn section offers up a dense but welcome presence. This is an infectiously joyous recording that proves Smith is still one of the most vibrant organists on the scene.

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