Jazz organists are a unique breed, able to switch from serious to funky quite literally at the push of a button. Joey DeFrancesco has been performing since he was a child, following in the footsteps of his jazz-playing father and grandfather.
A seasoned musician by his teens, having already shared the stage with saxophonist Hank Mobley and drummer "Philly" Joe Jones, DeFrancesco was truly honored when, at 17, Miles Davis asked him to join his touring band. He later recorded with Davis on Amandla. Record label obligations cut short his time with Davis, something he now regrets, but DeFrancesco--who learned to play trumpet following his stint with Davis--has forged a solid career that has seen him play and record with genre heavyweights.
His current group includes two jazz veterans, guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Jimmy Cobb. While Coryell has typically fronted his own ensembles, Cobb has kept the beat for artists including John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, and perhaps most famously, Miles Davis.
A North Scottsdale resident, Up On The Sun caught up with DeFrancesco during a tour break in Minneapolis.
Up On The Sun: You have two heavyweight jazzmen playing with you. How did this group come together? Joey DeFrancesco: I worked with Larry Coryell in 2009. We did some tours in 2009. He got a hold of me and asked if I'd play with him. I've played with Jimmy before that, and always loved Jimmy Cobb's playing. I wanted to put something special together so I got a hold of both of them to see if they wanted to put a trio together. Everybody was into it. We played together for a week in Switzerland earlier this year and it just clicked, so we decided to go on tour and make a group out of it.
On your album together, Wonderful, Wonderful, you can really hear how you work together, it's almost telepathic. Oh yeah, you're talking about musicians that know music, all different genres. I mean Larry's gone through the gamut of styles, always searching and exploring, as I do myself. And Jimmy's one of the swing masters of jazz drumming. He's been a very integral part of jazz drumming history. I'm a historian of music and I've been studying music all the years I've been playing, so the three of us make a good match, you know.
In putting Wonderful, Wonderful together, were your arrangements and songs pretty well established or did you piece it together as you went along? I put it together. I put the whole album together; I picked out the songs. I was listening to a lot of Sonny Rollins in the last year, albums like Way Out West and Newk's Time and some of those are there. "Wagon Wheels," "In My Solitude" and Newk's Time has "Wonderful, Wonderful." We did different arrangements on all of those, but that's what inspired the album. Originally I was thinking of doing the Way Out West record, doing everything off of that since I live in Arizona and the whole thing, but when I got Jimmy and Larry it kind of changed and I started thinking about other things too. Larry brought a tune to the (recording) date and I liked it, so we recorded that too. But I brought all the (other) music. They were happy with all the selections.
With the heavy organ sound on some tracks I can't help but recall the 1960s soul jazz movement and guys like Jimmy Smith and Dr. Lonnie Smith. Was this music inspirational for you as an organist? Of course, my dad played, so that's why we had all those great records in the house when I was a kid. Jimmy Smith...you know, soul jazz, I'm not sure how it got that title, I'm not sure when that started, but Jimmy Smith was very much as serious jazz player, especial in his early days. Then he started doing stuff like "Chicken Shack" and "I Got My Mojo Working" which are all great things, but all jazz comes from soul.
But I'm not a category person, I really don't like categories. But that's what we have and how it happens, but of course Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Groove Holmes, all of those guys were influential too me, as were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, too. I took everything I liked and poured it into a funnel.
You mention Herbie, who has done some organ work, but mostly plays piano. What is it that you can bring to jazz on the organ that perhaps you can't on the piano? The organ is kind of like having an orchestra right at your fingertips. There's a whole range of musical possibilities with the instrument. You can make it sound like a bass, like a big band, there's so many things you can do it with, but at the same time it's a wonderful for single lines to improvise, like saxophones or trumpets. I love the piano too, but the organ's my true voice. That's where I feel at home when I'm playing the organ. I play trumpet too, so I incorporate that kind of stuff into my organ playing too.
Speaking of trumpet... It must have been quite an honor when Miles asked you to join his band in the late-80s. You were only 17 so there was nothing holding you back, but could you even say no to Miles Davis? I don't see how you could. [Laughs]. That was a huge honor. Every day I think about it. I loved Miles before, but I got really close to him. I started playing the trumpet because of him. I didn't play it before that, I was listening, but I started playing because of him. It was really something to be right there and see him play every night, so when I came home from that tour I learned how to play the trumpet. He was encouraging; told me I sounded just like him. [Adopts a gravelly Miles Davis voice] "You're one with my sound." It really blew my mind. Did he ever tell you how he found you and why he chose you to join his tour? I know how he found me. I'm from Philadelphia originally, and there's a TV show, a morning talk show, that had Miles on as a guest. I was playing (with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Stacy Dozier) the house music that day. Miles watched me play that day and asked me for my number. "You can play," he said, and punched me in the chest. He called me about six months later. I guess the opening came up for a keyboard player and I went to his apartment in New York. He said, "Are you working with anybody?" No, not really. I was only 17-years-old. He said, "You want to work with the band?" Yeah. So he hired me. It was the summer of 1988. I think about it every day.
You started playing when you were very young, playing with guys like Hank Mobley when you were 10-years-old. So many artists who begin as kids--think Michael Jackson--have some real issues in their lives. What's kept you grounded in a career that's already a more than 30 years along--and you're only 41. I don't know. I've just always been really focused on my music. I've seen a lot of guys do things they shouldn't be doing, and I just didn't want that. I was afraid of that. I've been very true to the music. On the other hand, people like Michael Jackson were such celebrities that's a little different. There are a lot of other players, and I won't mention names, when I was coming up that had a lot of the same opportunities but didn't stay grounded and missed it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Lots of temptations out there for a young guy playing the bars and clubs? Everybody's offering you everything. To this day I don't drink really or do any of those things.
You live in North Scottsdale, so this will be like a homecoming show when you play at the Musical Instrument Museum? Yeah, I don't play in Arizona that much so it's always a pleasure to play in your backyard. The MIM's very close too. I can actually drive my own car to the gig.
Joey DeFrancesco / Jimmy Cobb / Larry Coryell Trio are scheduled to perform Friday, August 3, at the Musical Instrument Museum.