James Gaiters Soul Revival Pays Tribute to Organist John Patton’s 1968 Blue Note Classic With ‘Understanding Reimagined’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Understanding Reimagined is the third installment in this writer’s self-dubbed “2022 – the year of the organ-oriented bands.”  Ah, you may recall “organ-led” but in this case, the bandleader is Columbus, Ohio-based drummer James Gaiters, who leads a quartet featuring saxophonist Eddie Bayard, guitarist Kevin Turner and organist Robert Mason, the James Gaiters Soul Revival (JGSR). Gaiters is a student of the organ trio tradition and has played with Jimmy Smith as well as jazz greats Mulgrew Miller, David Murray, and James Carter, among others. The typical organ trio has either a guitarist or saxophonist but here we have both as the quartet reimagines pioneering soul-jazz organist John Patton’s 1968 Blue Note Understanding that featured tenor saxophonist/flutist Harold Alexander and drummer Hugh Walker. The idea is to give a soulful, swinging 21st century makeover of the same playlist.

The album kicks off with Harold Alexander’s “Ding Dong,” a boogaloo with a straight 16 bar groove that repeats itself continually as Bayard rides above Gaiters’ and Mason’s rhythms in the first solo, playing in the tradition of tenor greats such as Stanley Turrentine, Ike Quebec, and the composer. Mason follows with a perky statement and Turner adds his own quipping commentary while Gaiters keeps it steady. Next is the mega-hit by Sam & Dave, composed by Isaac Hayes and David Porter, “Soul Man.” The JDSR drastically slows the tempo with the organ stepping out with the first solo, followed by Turner’s bluesy take as both Mason and Gaiters slyly increase the tempo to the point where Turner and Bayard take it to a crescendo, bringing the band to full throttle. Listen closely and you’ll find the original melody but more importantly, this is the essence of reimagining – weaving in jazz, R&B, blues, and gospel. 

They transform Sonny Rollins’ “Alfie’s Theme” into a syncopated, hip-shaking swinger, again with effervescent solos from each. Mason sets the bar with his, and Bayard blows gritty with a precise sense of rhythm. Gaiters dances underneath, clearly having fun. When Turner steps in, the tide recedes a bit but as is the case with his two previous guitar excursions, he builds momentum that fuels the band members who take it out vigorously. Like they did on “Soul Man” the JGSR dramatically slows the tempo for Kenny Burrell’s “Chitlins Con Carne,” one of the most famous blues tunes in the jazz canon, first appearing on Burrell’s 1963 Midnight Blue, where both the composition and the album catapulted the careers of guitarist Burrell and tenor titan Stanley Turrentine. Rather obviously this is a feature for guitarist Turner and the slow simmering blues tonality the JGSR creates is a study in precious restraint.

The tempo kicks up with “Understanding,” another 16-bar tune, a boogaloo of sorts with feisty solos in order from Byard, Mason, and Turner. The vamp toward the end makes it impossible to sit still and feels like it could go on endlessly, only to end abruptly. The final piece is the only tune composed by Patton, “Congo Chant,” the longest rendered track, running to nine minutes. Its African rhythmic feel bears similarities to the blues but is even more repetitive in its 12-bar form. Mason states the head before delving into a whirling, grooving excursion. When Byard enters, his tone evokes a wining, crying mode, building to aggressive blowing, deftly using both the lower and upper reaches of his horn in response to the organist’s exclamations. The leader matches their adventurous takes, with a strong solo before the tune just fades away.

Everything that one likes about the organ combos is here – danceable grooves, bright soloing, the meshing of organ-guitar-saxophone to create that infectious soulful timbre. It’s a joyous, uplifting result, made special by the band’s ability to play exuberantly while keeping it tight.

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