Hammond B3 Titan Dr. Lonnie Smith Goes Live In Trio and Septet Formats on ‘Breathe’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Hammond B3 organ great Dr. Lonnie Smith adds another to his storied catalog of albums with the mostly live Breathe. During the 2017 celebration of his 75th birthday, just after being named an NEA Jazz Master, Smith settled into the Jazz Standard in New York City for a live recording date. With his steady trio of guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake, he first delivered the spirited All In My Mind album, which was released in 2018.  Now, more selections from that date emerge with the trio as well as an expanded septet on Breathe. Notably, the album is bookended by two unexpected studio collaborations between Smith and the legendary vocalist Iggy Pop.

I was playing with my trio at Arts Garage in Delray Beach in Florida,” says Dr. Lonnie, who lives in Ft. Lauderdale. “Iggy would come by and say he wanted to play with me. I let him play slaparoo and he loved it. He enjoyed playing with us. We thought about recording a few songs, so we went in with my trio backing us up, and it worked.”

In addition to Pop and Smith’s rhythm mates, percussionist Richard Bravo joined for the album’s opening track “Why Can’t We Live Together,” a 1972 R&B hit by Timmy Thomas that was later recorded by Sade on her 1984 debut album. Smith plays gentle grooves before diving into an energized solo but for the most part Bravo’s percussion and Smith’s organ keep stay in a sensuous smooth R&B vein not unlike the Sade version. The album closes with one more familiar to most as Iggy and Dr. Lonnie take Donovan’s 1965 hit “Sunshine Superman” for a funkified joyride. 

The live portion begins with the lyrical, buoyant “Bright Eyes,” a Dr. Lonnie original that hearkens back to the days to his tenure with George Benson. The septet includes John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Sean Jones on trumpet, Jason Marshall on baritone saxophone, and Robin Eubanks on trombone. “Too Damn Hot” is another original that starts slowly but then heats up with sizzling solos from Smith coaxing out notes from the organ as few can do. Standout track, Smith’s “Track 9,” brings syncopated funk where Ellis takes off on an aggressive solo before Jones takes it to another level in his blistering excursion, while, as expected, Blake is especially terrific on the traps.

Marshall adds his own spirited statement before the frenzy climaxes. Smith comments, “It’s like a train, ‘Track 9.’ It moves like a train. You hear it in the distance, then there’s the horn and the beat is slow then it picks up. I wanted to give it a James Brown feel.” The other septet selection is “Pilgrimage,” where in-demand vocalist Alicia Olatuja joins, bringing uncompromising soul over Smith’s smooth but ever-present comping. The horns join later, pushing the vibe forward, as guitarist Kreisberg takes a bluesy solo swelling the dynamics, before Olatuja re-enters in wailing roof-raising form.

There are two trio takes – first the epic, 12-minute soulful original “World Weeps” that builds with a wall of organ emotion following Kreisberg’s rather elegant statement. Smith points to its dirge-like New Orleans feel, when describing the piece. On the opposite side, the trio gets playful with Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” a showcase for Blake in this rather unusual interpretation which feels a bit odd without the piano, instead transformed into a funk workout. 

Breathe is Smith’s third Blue Note album since his 2016 return to the label where he made a name for himself in the late 1960s, first as a sideman with saxophonist Lou Donaldson on soul jazz classics like Alligator Boogaloo, and soon after as a leader with his own classics such as Think! and Turning Point. The 2016 album Evolution marked his Blue Note homecoming, followed by All In My Mind in 2018. His last three albums have all been produced by Blue Note president Don Was. A somber footnote to the release of Breathe is that the Jazz Standard recently shuttered for good because of the Covid-19 lockdown on live music venues, dealing a hard blow to the jazz community. Smith reflects, “It was a great place to play. It had great people, great sound and offered a great listening experience. It was my home.”

Breathe cooks throughout with one exciting performance after another with no two tunes much resembling one another, keeping it lively and engaging.

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