Dr. Lonnie Smith – The Healer (2012)

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The Healer begins not with a fiery assertion of his soul-jazz supremacy, but with a smoky rumination called “Back Track” — and Dr. Lonnie Smith and Co. remain right there, stubbornly outside of expectations.

Shadowing, and then leading, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, the legendary jazz organist deftly avoids all of the typical patois associated with his instrument. There’s not a hint of blues, and no hard bop either — at least not yet. Instead, the pair explore wide-open spaces closer in nature to 1970s fusion jazz, even as drummer Jamire Williams offers an insistent, almost menacing cadence.

The humorously titled “Mellow Mood” — second of three tracks recorded at the Lamantin Jazz Festival on June 22, 2011 in Hungary — likewise showcases an unsentimental artist who’s giving no ground on The Healer, due September 18, 2012 from Pilgrimage. A serrated blowing session, “Mellow Mood” features Smith skittering over the top of a propulsive and layered accompaniment from Keisberg and Williams — gurgling and stabbing, feinting and skirmishing, all of it with a bruising vigor.

It’s not until the R&B-soaked “Dapper Dan,” which finds The Healer switching venues to New York City’s Jazz Standard on January 14, 2012, that Smith settles into anything that might be called familiar on this capitivating journey of a record. “Dan” slinks in with an almost feral sense of sensuality, as Smith and Kreisberg — who also serves as producer on this date — tangle and untangle over Williams’ tongue-wagging second-line beat. If Smith’s older George Benson/Lou Donaldson-era fans were waiting for that moment when this new album starts cooking with gas, then this is it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Lonnie Smith brought a swash-buckling sense of adventure to his music, and the self-taught, turban-wearing organist has rarely failed to surprise and delight.]

Smith isn’t finished exploring, though. “Chelsea Bridge” is a subtle reminder of what his often-overlooked instrument can do in the ballad setting, as Smith adds subtle shadings to Kreisberg’s dark ruminations and then takes over for a thunderously emotional turn of his own. “Bee Hive,” the last of three consecutive tracks from the Jazz Standard date, rumbles along with a noisy verve — edging dangerously, thrillingly close to the muscular noise of prog rock.

Finally, there’s the title track, which returns the trio to the Lamantin Jazz Festival — this time in a meditative mood. As Kreisberg explores a gospel-inspired signature, Smith seems at first to be almost lost in reverie. The track eventually builds (finally, some might say) into a blues-steeped excursion, a recapitulation in the best sense of the word.

Smith, with nothing left to prove, finishes The Healer by bringing everything full circle — all the way back to the blues. It might not have been needed, not from an artist that’s moved so confidently and so far afield over the years, but it certainly gives Dr. Lonnie Smith’s engagingly diverse new recording a satisfying sense of closure.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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