Dr. Lonnie Smith Returns to Blue Note: The Groove is the Thing

lonnie smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith, Evolution (Blue Note) — Lonnie Smith forever has been all about celebrating and tweaking the classic ’60s B3 organ-combo sound. The turbaned one effectively sticks to that strategy with the Don Was-produced Evolution, his first album for Blue Note in 45 years.

His funk-alicious rhythms undergird a marathon 14-minute reworking of old favorite “Play It Back,” bolstered by Robert Glasper’s contrasting acoustic piano and solo turns from tenor saxophonist John Ellis and trumpeter Keyon Harrold. Saxophonist Joe Lovano guests on soprano on the trippy, wah-edged “Afrodesia” and tenor on the slow-burning “For Heaven’s Sake”; he turns in fruitful solos, but seems a bit underused.

The disc’s core trio — Smith, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake — is featured on a reharmonized “Straight No Chaser” and an extended, rambling version of “My Favorite Things” that opens with a long, slow build before moving to a full gallop.

Dr. Lonnie’s latest is less about extraordinary improvising or, as the album’s title might suggest, taking his chosen form in new directions. But his medicine still tastes good — occasional experimental edges, odd electronic touches, stray trombone blasts (“African Suite”) and all.

(Side note: “Play It Back” has long been in the repertoire of my band Acme Jazz Garage)

 

Jose James Has the Blues (And That’s Good) — CD review

JoseJames_YesterdayIHadTheBlues_cover

Jose James, “Yesterday I Had the Blues” (Blue Note)

Jose James may or may not have been afflicted with the blues at some point in his life. A decidedly deep-blue soulfulness nevertheless shades the nine songs heard on the Minneapolis-born singer’s tribute to Billie Holiday, who would have turned 100 this Tuesday. The set features music written or popularized by Holiday, whose influence as a jazz singer and performer still looms large.

Each of these tunes is played at a luxuriously slow tempo, by three musicians who understand the underappreciated art of grooving in  way-laidback mode: Jason Moran on piano and Rhodes, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Eric Harland.

An appealing aural spaciousness and resonance are at the heart of the sound of this Don Was-produced recording, starting with opener “Good Morning Heartache,” as the trio begins with a heartbeat rhythm and relaxes into opening chords before James glides in, singing notes on the lower end of his range. Mid-song, Moran offers an understated solo. The singing and playing, here and elsewhere, feel marvelously lived-in.

Unhurried, too, is the defining feel of “Body and Soul,” which opens with unaccompanied piano and voice, and then Patitucci, his bass woody and grinding, and Harland go it alone at the start of “Fine and Mellow,” which opens up for a bending, stretching solo romp by Patitucci. “I Thought About You,” entirely absent of bass and drums, is pure intimacy, regret, and nostalgia, bolstered by Moran’s series of crystalline piano flurries and swinging solo.

The disc closes with two Holiday favorites, a version of “God Bless the Child” bolstered by a heavy backbeat and warmed by Moran’s Rhodes piano, and a haunting, spiritual-like take on “Strange Fruit,” complete with handclaps and James’ own stacks of humming vocals.

“Yesterday” won’t soon be forgotten.

Aaron Neville, “My True Story” (CD review)


my true storyAaron Neville, “My True Story” (Blue Note)

Fans of the Neville Brothers, whose combination of sweet soul singing, deep R&B grooves, jazzy touches and Caribbean influences practically define the sound of New Orleans, doubtless have been feeling a bit blue lately.

Why? Angelic-voiced front man Aaron Neville has opted to officially exit the group and focus on his solo career. He, rather than the Neville Brothers, will play the closing set at this year’s Jazz and Heritage Festival, while siblings Art, Charles and Cyril, rechristened “The Nevilles,” will cap the first weekend and, one guesses, resume touring — no doubt they’ll be lighter on the sweet harmonies if heavier on the funk.

It would hardly be fair to blame Aaron for making his move. The time is right. After all, the family band, with “Papa Funk” Art Neville now 75 and in less than robust health, largely has been inactive in recent years. What’s more, at 72 and having survived the loss of his wife Joel to lung cancer and relocation from New Orleans to the Nashville area and then New York City in recent years, he’s more than earned the right to go his own way.

“I put the Neville Brothers on hold for a while so I could do my solo thing,” Neville told Relix magazine. “We’ve been together 35 years and I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know how long I’ve got to do what I want to do.’ I need to take that time now and dedicate it to me, and just try to do my stuff I’ve been wanting to do all my life.”

“My True Story” suggests that Neville’s instincts were, well, true. Initially conceived as a doo-wop project reflecting his formative experiences in the art of street-corner singing, the album expanded into something larger. It’s a broader tribute to the pre-rock era, with a dozen retro pop radio favorites originally recorded during a roughly 12-year period ending in 1964.

Don Was, once part of soul-fired pop act Was (Not Was) and now head of the revived Blue Note label, put together a dream team to back Neville. Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards leads a band that includes Benmont Tench, of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, on keyboards; guitarist Greg Leisz (Sheryl Crow, Beck); bassist Tony Scherr (Norah Jones, Steven Bernstein); New Orleans drummer George G. Receli (James Brown, Bob Dylan); and journeyman saxophonist Lenny Pickett (“Saturday Night Live” band, Tower of Power).

The band, with Was and Richards co-producing live-in-the-studio sessions at New York’s Electric Lady Studios, reportedly cut nearly two dozen tracks, all of which benefit from an appealing immediacy — the stuff sounds fresh.

For the first volume of what may become a series, Neville applies his rich, shivery, tenor vocals to material that still comes with a kick after all these years. He opens with the rollicking, starting-stopping “Money Honey,” a 1953 chart topper by Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters, this time featuring Richards’ slinky six-string stabs, and closes with a suitably light and altogether effervescent version of the much-recorded “Goodnight My Love” (Pleasant Dreams).”

In between are 10 other gems that ought to be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with pop music history.

Neville’s voice slides into the falsetto stratosphere on the title track, a 1961 single by the Jive Five that soared up the R&B and pop charts.; the tune, like many on the disc, is bolstered by a blue-chip backup crew of old-school singers, including the Jive Five’s Eugene Pitt, Bobby Jay of the Teenagers, and Dickie Harmon of the Del-Vikings.

There are plenty of other finger-snapping delights here, including “Ruby Ruby,” with its infectious call and response, and Pickett’s crunching bari sax; “Ting A Ling,” all romantic frustration and pounding piano and sax; a pleasantly streamlined “Be My Baby”; heartbreak ode “Tears On My Pillow”; a laidback, gently grooving “Under the Boardwalk”; a chug-a-lugging “Work With Me Annie,” with “Papa Funk” Art Neville on B3; and a medley stitching “This Magic Moment” to “True Love.”

Yes, these tunes inherently come with a strong whiff of nostalgia. Give Neville and Co. credit for reinvigorating these classics in a manner that’s often irresistible. Great concept, beautifully executed. Now, about that sequel.