Gimme Five: Dr. Lonnie Smith on his funky times, classic sessions and psychedelic turns

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Go inside the earliest sessions featuring legendary Hammond B-3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith, as he takes over our regular One Track Mind feature.

Smith, who has just released a terrific live set on Pilgrimage called The Healer, also discusses his current trio, his reluctance to pander to his audience by playing nothing but pop hits, and the lasting intrigues of psychedelia and free-jazz forms …

“SEE SAW,” LONNIE SMITH (TURNING POINT, 1969): A tasty trio of organist Smith, guitarist Melvin Sparks and drummer Leo Morris (who later changed his name to Idris Muhammad) is joined by a smartly swinging group of horn players — trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenor saixst Bennie Maupin and trombone Julian Priester — on this tune co-written by Don Covay and Steve Cropper. Often, Smith would throw the assembled band a series of curve balls on sessions like this one, hoping to keep everything as loose and improvisational as possible.

LONNIE SMITH: When I first started recording, I remember I would go in the studio — and it would be guys like Lee Morgan, Melvin Sparks, David Newman. We would go in, and I’d say we were going to play something, and we would just start recording. But I would change it, Nick. I would play something different! (Laughs.) And they would say: “You changed it.” I would say: “Oh, OK. Play it this way now.” So, we would start recordings — and I would change it again, you see? Usually they played the lines together, but they didn’t know what I was going to play. I would change it constantly. I still do that.

[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.]

“DAPPER DAN,” LONNIE SMITH TRIO (THE HEALER, 2012): Originally found on Smith’s 2009 release Rise Up!, this new version was performed at the Jazz Standard in New York City earlier this year with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams. The trio, which previously recorded 2010’s Spiral, have become seasoned bandmates after several years on the road, creating this air-tight sense of musical camaraderie.

LONNIE SMITH: It’s beautiful. They’re not afraid to give it to me! (Laughs.) They’re not afraid, and that’s the beauty in it. They seem to gravitate toward whatever I am playing. They jump into it, and plus they add something to it. They’re not just there, you know? Let’s say if I’m playing this, and then I start playing that, they are fast enough to catch on to it. It’s beautiful, the way they are not afraid to go somewhere.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: ‘The Healer’ begins not with a fiery assertion of his soul-jazz supremacy, but with a smoky rumination — and Dr. Lonnie Smith remains right there, stubbornly outside of expectations.]

“BABBITT’S OTHER SONG,” LONNIE SMITH (FUNK REACTION, 1977): A classic fusion of jazz, R&B and spacey sound effects, “Babbitt’s” was part of a Lester Radio Corporation release produced by Sonny Lester and featuring tenor Eddie Daniels and guitarist Richie Hohenburger, among others. Those wow-man flourishes on Funk Reaction are but one example of the lasting interest Smith has shown in both psychedelia and free-jazz forms, going all the way back at least to his offbeat interpretation of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” in the late 1960s.

LONNIE SMITH: That does go back for years. Even when I didn’t play it, I wanted to play it. I wanted to do that many years ago, because my mind was out there. It was out there, all the way from the beginning. I just heard something different. Although I love the things that we were doing, I just heard something different.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: Lou Donaldson’s 1967 burner “Peepin,’” written by Lonnie Smith, was the song that first got me to explore Dr. Smith’s own works later on as a leader.]

“THINK,” LONNIE SMITH (THINK!, 1968): Reinterpreting this Aretha Franklin favorite as a grease-popping soul-jazz groover, Smith is joined by saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman (who came to fame as a sideman with Ray Charles), trumpeter Lee Morgan, guitarist Melvin Sparks and others. Although these kind of crossover tunes would regularly turn into jukebox hits for Smith, he typically shied away from them in concert — preferring, much to the consternation of some of his newer fans, to perform original music.

LONNIE SMITH: Oh, yeah! At that time, I would record that stuff, but I wouldn’t play it. I really didn’t care. I would get on the stage, and I would play it entirely differently. That was rough, because people, when they come to see you, they had one thing in mind — what they heard on the radio. I remember doing concerts, headlining, and I would get there and people would get angry with me because I was doing newer original compositions. They wanted to hear the record. That’s what they came to hear. That’s not good. Not good. For instance, if you go hear a pop star, you want them to play that song. That’s how they got you there in the first place. Bill Doggett used to have the song “Honky Tonk,” and he had to play that thing until the day he died. Every set, sometimes two or three times. They didn’t care. That’s what I remember, him playing those records over and over again. I didn’t want to do that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REVIEWS: We loved it in 2009 when Lonnie Smith took total possession of the Stylistics’ “People Make The World Go Round,” bear hugging it with a funky midtempo groove.]

“AFRO DESIA,” LONNIE SMITH (AFRO DESIA, 1975): Recording with his old friend George Benson (who was uncredited on the original project), saxophonist Joe Lovano and bassist Ron Carter, among others, Smith sets off an explosion of jazz-funk for the appropriately named Groove Merchant label. (The lesser-known Greg Hopkins, who’s played with Buddy Rich, George Adams and Gunther Schuller, takes a sterling turn on the trumpet, as well.) The album, grittier, bolder and much more modern than his work from just a few years before, represents another in the intriguing sideroads that Smith has consistently explored.

LONNIE SMITH: That’s the key! That’s what I wanted to do — to reach as wide a group of people as possible. It’s like, one day you want steak, then you might want fish the next day, or lobster. Everybody doesn’t like sushi, but I love sushi. You understand what I’m saying? So, what I do is, I try to understand what people really yearn for. Something that they have a taste for. And that’s why I’m out here — to give the people something they can relate to.

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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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