Organ Donor

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."

Back in 1969, McLaughlin, drummer Williams and organist Young had formed the first jazz/rock fusion trio to utilize an organ. That McLaughlin would choose DeFrancesco as a replacement for the late Young, a highly experimental organist, was a monumental compliment.

McLaughlin and DeFrancesco's albums together--especially 1993's live-in-Tokyo The Free Spirits and the 1995 Coltrane tribute After the Rain--are top-drawer updates of the old-style Philadelphia-based organ trio funk that DeFrancesco had cut his teeth on.

Now Phoenix gets to hear him weekly, either under his own name or guesting with the likes of local trumpeter Dave Cook, at Club Melody's Monday night jam sessions, hosted by Cook. At Cook's Club Melody debut on March 1, DeFrancesco sat in and stole the show with his sizzling, soulful runs.

"I'm in a position where it doesn't really matter where I live," he says. "My wife is from here, I lived here before, and I just wanted to move back," says DeFrancesco. "So now I play here regularly, every Wednesday at Club Melody, some very traditional McGriff-ish, funky organ stuff. The old Melody Lounge is really hip. Some people--I think they're from the Netherlands--bought it, and there's organ jazz four nights a week."

Club Melody's new owners, Willa and Corrie Alexander [who changed the name of the club formerly known as Melody Lounge] have made DeFrancesco a central part of their plan to revive the onetime jazz haven--for years the place where local cats hung out, exchanged notes and jammed. In addition, DeFrancesco and Cook have talked about opening their own club.

"Actually, an after-hours place is what we have in mind," DeFrancesco says. Through his and Cook's efforts, Phoenix might pump up the limp local jazz scene by simultaneously entertaining reminiscing snowbirds and hip young acid-jazz fans. "Yeah, you never know," DeFrancesco shrugs. One thing is certain. Between world tours, DeFrancesco will be there, playing faithfully whether or not we come to listen.

Joey DeFrancesco is scheduled to perform every Wednesday night at Club Melody in Tempe.


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