Detroit Guitar Jazz/Funk Legend Dennis Coffey Boils with Live Session ‘One Night at Morey’s: 1968’ (ALBUM REVIEW)


It seems that there’s a revival of funk guitarists going on. Just two weeks after Resonance released three albums of Grant Green’s evolution funk from the 70s, Omnivore has released a live session from Detroit funk master Dennis Coffey – One Night at Morey’s 1968. Even if you don’t know it, you’ve all heard Dennis Coffey before. Coffey was a “Funk Brother” along with bassist James Jamerson, one of the world’s iconic studio ensembles for countless Motown hits as celebrated in the Grammy-award-winning soundtrack for Standing in the Shadows of Motown, which featured Coffey. When you think of the Temptations hits “Ball of Confusion,” “Cloud Nine,” “Just My Imagination” or Edwin Starr’s “War,” to name just a handful, it’s Coffey that you hear on guitar. Along the way, Coffey collaborated with his partner, Mike Theodore, to produce records in several genres. They also discovered and produced Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of the Oscar winning documentary from 2012, Searching for Sugar Man.

Today you can still find Coffey playing every Tuesday night at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit. This documents when Coffey led a trio that featured legendary organist Lyman Woodard (Martha Reeves & the Vandellas) and drummer Melvin Davis (Smoky Robinson) in a mostly soul jazz live recording at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge in Detroit from 1968. This is heady stuff, coming a half decade later than the heyday of Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and other iconic organ trios. This is not to say that organ trios are a thing of the past. We still have Medeski, Martin and Wood, Joey DeFranceso/Pat Martino as well as others. Nonetheless, given Coffey’s tenure across a bevy of Motown groups and hits where he generally had to play with restraint, this setting allowed him to stretch out, giving the listener the opportunity to really understand what Coffey’s wonderful guitar talent. There’s soul, rock and even a bit of rock ‘n’ roll in these nine tracks being issued for the first time. And, there isn’t a whole lot of restraint either. When you think of Jimmy Smith or even the work Grant Green did with organ trios, it would be best described as “simmering,” “smoldering,” or “soulful.” Coffey’s trio, on the other hand, mostly plays with unbridled intensity. Call it BOILING.

This follows last year’s Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge, released by Resonance Records and drawn from the Morey’s residency, but with an entirely different track list. All tracks on One Night at Morey’s: 1968 are previously unissued and come directly from the vaults of Coffey and his producer, Mike Theodore. There are original compositions “Big City Lights,” “Mindbender,” and “Union Station,” as well as surprising and funky covers of “Billie’s Bounce” by Charlie Parker, “Burning Spear” by The Soul Strings, “Cissy Strut” by the Meters, “Eleanor Rigby” by the Beatles, “Groovin’” by the Young Rascals, and “I’m a Midnight Mover,” by Wilson Pickett (from the pen of both Pickett and Bobby Womack).

According to Coffey, “Morey Baker’s was the hottest club in town and packed every night! We rocked the house.” The trio’s gigs, unlike most of the Motown stuff they were involved in, were not about dancing, but simply listening. They developed a loyal following. Coffey says, “We played there once a week and always packed the house. Much of our audience was middle to upper class folks who were judges, attorneys, businessmen and women who just loved listening to our brand of funk, jazz, rock and soul.” Coffey would constantly bring in new music from different genres, having worked out all the musical arrangements in advance. Yet, he claims they never played the same song the same way twice. They’d just count off and go, never rehearsing.

Lyman’s organ is stellar as he provides churning and swirling counterpoint to Coffey’s riffing and Davis’s drumming really pushes the tempos. The sound quality is pristine, especially given the age of the recording. Strap yourself in. My guess is you’ve rarely heard playing as intense as this. And, you’ll probably want to pick up last year’s album too.

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