Sunday, September 20, 2015

Last Night's Dr. Lonnie Smith Show, in which Donny meets Dr. Lonnie

I took Donovan with me last night to see Dr. Lonnie Smith. It felt like a risk because the kid is not really a jazz fan, at least not yet. And the last time I took him to a jazz show, he got pretty restless halfway through, when the snacks ran out.

But the previous show didn't involve a Hammond B3 organ, which I somehow managed to get him interested in. And Dr. Lonnie Smith is probably the last of the prime B3 masters so Donny needed to see this. Someday, he'll thank me.

The New Hazlett Theater, on the North Side, piqued Donny's interest immediately. He remembered being there for Ben Opie's large scale performance in the spring of 2014, and he ran up to the building pretty excitedly. He wanted to sit on the upper level, so we sat stage right, which was perfect because we could look down and see Dr. Lonnie's whole arsenal clearly: the B3 keys, pedals, TWO Leslie cabinets, plus a sampler that had a huge circle and the sound of a conga. He also had two small (like vintage Casio size) keyboards on top of his organ and a Yamaha Motif XF8. These keys had pre-programmed sounds, the former two sounding like an Enchanted forest noises, while the XF8 had percussive loops. It seemed like we had the perfect spot.

We did. The good Doctor made his entrance, with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Kendrick Scott, decked out in a long flowing white outfit and his trademark turban. As he got his bearings he mentioned the Hurricane Lounge - the long gone Hill District club that featured organ players in the '50s and '60s - and naturally he got a rise out of the audience. After a quick talk about owner Birdie Dunlap and about Smith's hookup with George Benson, they dug into the music.

"Back Track" began with slow suspense, Smith hitting the conga trigger, Scott scraping a stick on a cymbal and Kreisberg using a wah effect. The lengthy theme hit a roaring climax near the end of the chorus, which Kreisberg and Smith used with skill to wow the audience.

I've noticed that a number of B3 organists let their sideman solo first, which lets the organ have the final say without being followed by anyone. Smith was no exception, giving Kreisberg the first solo most of the time, then tearing things up. Early on, he showed a visceral, rhythmic approach that went beyond the keyboard: playing, clapping, hitting the conga trigger and - most significantly - singing along with what he was playing. We were treated to some standard B3 sounds - a lot of runs up and down the keyboard, along with some extended trilling - which never sounded routine. It was all placed skillfully and exciting to see and hear live. "Mellow Mood," a Jimmy Smith tune, sounded like a Latin boogaloo, with a fast, boppish line.

Smith knew how to put on a show, from the way he played to the way he talked between sets. That made total sense, as he had family and some old friends in the audience. At one point, he flubbed the name of a song, which led to jokes about his old age, and pretending to forget where he was. So he repeatedly joked, "I don't know the name of this song, but you don't either," which in turn became more of a joke when the song in question was "50 Ways to Leave Your Lover," naturally a showcase for Scott in the introduction. And don't laugh, because the break in that song serves as a good blowing vehicle for the guitar and organ.

But while he acted as a showman, Smith also worked adventure into the second set of the evening. A version of Thelonious Monk's "Straight No Chaser" superimposed the melody line (peeled off rapidly by Kreisberg) over a organ swirl that sounded like Miles Davis' "It's About that Time." Smith proved that the blues doesn't have to sound the same each time.

"My Favorite Things" has been done by many jazz musicians since John Coltrane gave it some jazz cred, but the trio took it further than most. They gave it the kind of intensity one would expect from Trane. Smith's organ lines even seemed to go for Trane-like vocabulary, as Scott pushed the intensity up further than further. When they reached the song's coda and held it furiously, it felt like we had reached lift-off.

There were a few more tunes after that. What looked like Smith's metal walking stick became a diddly bo in Smith's hands, an instrument that emitted low - and sub-basement low - sounds when Smith whacked it with his thumb. Walking around the stage, pausing to hit a stomp box for distortion and imitate Jimi Hendrix (his words), he eventually made his way back to the organ for one more tune. But that "My Favorite Things" coda wasn't going to be topped.

During intermission, Donny decided he wanted to try to meet Dr. Lonnie. We didn't get close to him then, because he was sitting at a table signing CDs and shaking hands. But after the second set, we headed back to the table quickly and I helped ease the boy up to the good doctor, who gracefully shook his hand. Both seemed to be impressed with one another. You have to admire a guy in his 70s who can play that intensely and then get deluged by fans immediately after a set. What a trooper.

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