Today you can still find guitar legend Dennis Coffey playing every Tuesday night at Northern Lights Lounge in Detroit. Previous recordings of Coffey in recent years (One Night at Morey’s, 1968, Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge)have focused on the late ‘60s, the heyday of funk. Live at Baker’s, from a 2006 session, brings us into a more contemporary mode.
For this spring Saturday night in 2006, Coffey’s band included future two-time Detroit Music Award-winner Demetrius Nabors on keys, Grammy-nominated Gaelynn McKinney on drums and bassist Damon Warmack. Already it’s different from the other Coffey dates being that it’ a quartet rather than an organ trio. It’s an eclectic mix of tunes that displays not only Coffey’s funk genius but tasteful playing on melodic tunes like “Moonlight in Vermont,” as just one example.
He begins with “Little Sunflower,” which first appeared on trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s Backlash. It’s a bossa nova line where Coffey’s lead is loosely based on Hubbard’s trumpet part. “Chicago Song” comes from David Sanborn’s Grammy-winning 1967 Change of Heart. Although Warmack stays true to the original bass line, Coffey’s quartet takes the tune more into a soul-jazz direction. As the modest Coffey says, “All I did was choose these songs. I just adapted them to my style with the musicians I had with me. And once we started playing them, they organically took on a life of their own.”
A standout is the smoothed-out version of Coffey’s own 1971 funk hit, “Scorpio,” where Coffey stays true to the original melody while his rhythm section lays down a different set of grooves than the original. That’s followed by his tender, faithful reading of the standard “Moonlight in Vermont.” The requisite Motown tune is the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” one that owes its melody largely to the lines Coffey conceived. Here they explore the tune’s romantic jazz characteristics in a ten minute plus cut.
This sets the stage for a series of rather classic jazz tunes. First up is Jimmy Smith’s “The Sermon” wherein Nabors plays the electric piano rather than organ and Coffey uses guitar lines that occasionally reference Smith, putting his own stamp on them. That’s followed by “All Blues” from Miles Davis’ iconic Kind of Blue. Although it’s a challenging modal tune, Coffey uses an approach he calls “tonal-center,” finding chords that revolve around the central chord. “Way Back Home” owes to Joe Sample and the Jazz Crusaders, a group Coffey did sessions with when he was in L.A. He wraps up with “Dink’s Blues” drawn from Jack McDuff’s 1961 Honeydripper, which featured guitarist Grant Green. Coffey makes subtle nods to Green as he weaves through the tune.
As background, Coffey was a leading force, 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.
Like the best musicians, Coffey says, “I’m still learning music and trying to come up with new stuff.” He’s now 78, showing absolutely no interest in quitting any time soon, recalling time spent playing with Les Paul when Paul was 91 or 92 and seeing Segovia play a concert all by himself at 92. Keep on playing, Dennis!