Organ Donor

Phoenix transplant Joey DeFrancesco rides a renewed fascination with the vintage sound of jazz organ

It took somewhere near 20 phone calls to catch Joey DeFrancesco between tours. His perpetually full schedule is an impressive state of affairs for someone who plays an instrument that until fairly recently was horribly unpopular in jazz for several decades.

"I'm in Europe a lot, but it was New Orleans last week," says the organist, by way of an apology for not returning the last dozen phone messages.

The burly, twenty-something Hammond B-3 man is hot stuff now, both locally, since moving to Phoenix from the East Coast last year, and nationally as well.

DeFrancesco recently switched from the HighTone label, a respectable soul/funk jazz company, to the higher profile Concord Records, where a big-band project will soon be released in his name. What has produced the most interest in his considerable organ chops, though, is the current dance-club fascination with acid jazz.

"I'm not sure what they mean by acid jazz," DeFrancesco concedes. "I see a lot of those old jazz organ records being reissued, and I didn't realize they were calling that acid jazz until it came out again."

The acid-jazz movement most likely resulted from financially strapped young music fiends scarfing up four-for-a-buck albums at thrift stores, scratchy discs dumped off by aging hipsters who tossed out their early '70s jazz releases along with their soundtracks to Shaft and Superfly, later sampled by their new owners on DJ gigs. As a result, the organ scene from 25 years ago was recycled.

Though confused by the term, DeFrancesco has bought all of the two-dozen-plus Legends of Acid Jazz reissues recently released by Prestige Records, which showcase late '60s/early '70s organ giants like Shirley Scott and Don Patterson. Whether into acid jazz or not, the Legends series remains the most thorough introduction to the roots of jazz-funk available. And fans of the genre have picked up on DeFrancesco as the most notable revivalist of the instrument.

Joey, thanks to his father, Papa John DeFrancesco, who has released a load of jazz-funk organ material under his own name, grew up regularly hearing all the now-reissued stuff at home.

"I started playing when I was four, around 1975," DeFrancesco recalls, "as a result of my dad. Jimmy Smith was his hero, and became mine."

Smith's nasty grooves perfectly conveyed his cocky attitude. "Jimmy Smith really dominated the scene with his feel and approach, his fire, you know? And while I like organist Jimmy McGriff for his soulful, churchy, blues style, and Larry Young's McCoy Tyner/Monk approach, Jimmy was doing it all many years before. His style was very advanced. Way back in 1956 and 1957 he had a very different approach to playing, innovative on many levels."

Joey's father had hung out with all the jazz organists while living in the Philadelphia area, the breeding ground for the jazz organ trio sound. By the time Joey was growing up, though, the organ had become a very unpopular instrument in jazz due to its Holiday Inn lounge associations. For some, it had become synonymous with fun-machine tackiness.

"It didn't matter to me," says DeFrancesco. "I was so young, I didn't know any better. My dad played it, and we had all the hip jazz organ records in the house. Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith were superstars to me. They were my versions of Michael Jackson."

The young DeFrancesco made himself a name obscenely early in his career. "I was signed to Columbia when I was 16," the organist says. "At 17 I went on the road with Miles Davis. There was a local morning television show in Philadelphia that had guests, and they were gonna have Miles on, so they wanted to have music, a house band, for the show just that one day.

"They decided to use the Philadelphia All-City Trio, which consisted of me and bassist Christian McBride and a drummer. I was playing synthesizer with an organ sound, and after the show Miles punched me in the chest and said, 'You can really play,' and he took my number. A year later he called and wanted to know if I wanted to join his band.

"I was in my last year of high school at the time, but I was able to go because I got a tutor, and I ended up still graduating with my class. The stuff off [the 1986 album] Tutu was what we were playing on the tour, though I wasn't on the album. I was on Amandla and Miles Around the World."

The Miles encounter occurred after DeFrancesco had recorded his first of five albums for Columbia--the result of a freakish jazz-promoting binge by the label. In the early '80s, Columbia corralled a load of adolescent jazzers it hoped would prove to be as colorful as its most outspoken new young star, Wynton Marsalis. None of them were, and nearly all of them soon fell out of favor with the record-buying audience.

DeFrancesco, however, soon found yet another career boost through legendary guitarist John McLaughlin. "We were introduced to each other through Miles," recalls DeFrancesco. "I never thought anything would come of it since we were only introduced to each other, really. Then about four years later I heard from John that he was interested in forming an organ trio. He might have been reviving that Tony Williams' Lifetime thing, since he really loved Larry Young."

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