The Hammond B3 organ has two true personalities—brash and groovy. But in recent years, the instrument's groovy side has been heard less and less. Most young jazz organists coming up today—and many vets—seem to prefer showing off what technical monsters they are rather than exploring the instrument's rich textures and gospel roots.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, most Hammond practitioners learned to work the double-decker keyboards and foot pedals in church, accompanying singing congregations. Many of today's organists are colder and more likely to come out of music conservatories, bars and acid-jazz recording studios.
Nearly all over-compensate on the instrument to show that they are the rightful heirs to Charles Earland, the father of the modern organ. But while no one could build a crescendo and pull out all the stops like Earland, the "Mighty Burner," as he was known, had a gentle side.
And he had great taste, cherry-picking pop standards of the 1970s and 1980s and giving them a groovy lick that knocked your socks off. Aquarius or More Today Than Yesterday or the Moonlighting theme may not have been your bag when you heard them on the radio or TV. But you loved those tunes after Earland's hands and feet were finished with them.
That's why I was so pleased to receive Deep Blue Organ Trio's Folk Music in the mail earlier this week. The group's third album revives the instrument's groovy sound and saves it from extinction. The CD's title certainly is an insider's nod to the organ's 1970s' roots.
Back then, Earland, Don Patterson, Leon Spencer, Chester Thompson and other organists changed the direction of the instrument. Where Wild Bill Davis had given the organ a big-band feel in the 1940s and Jimmy Smith brought it down to size in the 1950s, soulful players like Shirley Scott, Jimmy McGriff, Brother Jack McDuff and Richard "Groove" Holmes added a funkier, percussive sound in the early 1960s.
But by late in the decade, the jazz organ was on the ropes. Little by little, the Hammond's distinct soul sound was adapted by r&b groups such as Booker T and & MG's, pop acts such as Question Mark and the Mysterians, concert rockers such as The Doors, and category-defying ensembles such as Sly and the Family Stone. The organ even won a starring role on Frank Sinatra's That's Life and Strangers in the Night albums of 1966.
But in the early 1970s, soulful organists emerged again—thanks largely to labels like Prestige and Black Jazz, and producers like Bob Porter. This time, organists would combine their church-based approach with the r&b sound of Marvin Gaye, Archie Bell, Gladys Knight and other soul artists.
That's why it's so gratifying that Deep Blue Organ Trio knows its 1970s stuff. The group features Chris Foreman on organ, Bobby Broom on guitar and Greg Rockingham on drums.
The 50-year-old Foreman was born blind, learned to play the organ by listening to records of organ greats, and didn't start playing in his local church until age 20. Chris made his debut in 1981 on blues guitarist Albert Collins' Don't Lose Your Cool.
Guitarist Bobby Broom, 46, played his first concert at age 16. At Carnegie Hall. With Sonny Rollins. While attending the High School of Music and Art, he was invited by Sonny to audition. Bobby rejoined Rollins in 2005 and has been a member of Sonny's working band.
Drummer Greg Rockingham, 48, knows a great organ when he hears one. His dad is organist David Rockingham, who led an early-1960s r&b trio with guitarist RC Robinson and drummer Shante Hamilton. In 1963, the trio had an instrumental Top 100 hit with Dawn. Greg sat in with his dad's group at age 5 and was a member between the ages of 9 and 16. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, he spent 10 years playing with the Mighty Burner himself—Charles Earland.
Folk Music opens with an original soulful blues credited to all three band members. Listen to that deep organ groove with the guitar riding piggyback, note for note. Man, that's what I'm talking about!
Next up is Hank Mobley's cooker, This I Dig of You, from Mobley's classic, Soul Station. What a great, off-beat choice, and the group takes the tune at about the same tempo as the original. Next is I Thought About You, the 1939 Van Heusen-Mercer standard. The trio's interpretation never makes the mistake of feeding directly into the Tin Pan Alley standard but instead keeps it groovy. Victor Feldman's The Chant follows, a fabulous gospel-funk tune.
Perhaps of the album's oddest—and coolest—choice is She's Leaving Home, the Lennon-McCartney tear-jerker from Sgt. Pepper's. It's always dangerous for jazz musicians to take on a Beatles tune, since most interpretations sound foolish at best and the melodies don't lend themselves easily to a jazz vibe. But Deep Blue Organ Trio puts a whole new spin on the rock classic. The group slows the song down to a simmer, making it sound more like Brook Benton's Rainy Night in Georgia.
In the spirit of Charles Earland, the trio takes on the 1980 Stephanie Mills disco hit, Never Knew Love Like This Before. In Deep Blue's hands, the club anthem gets a groovy makeover, and it swings.
The album's high point for me is Ceora, a terrific Lee Morgan tune with a mild bossa beat that comes from Morgan's 1965 Cornbread album. Here, Foreman offers a clinic in how to play the organ. Listen as he slowly builds the song to a crescendo and at the high point uses a mind-blowing and tasteful Grazin' in the Grass chord tag. Broom's guitar solo is sublime, a bluesy tribute to Melvin Sparks.
Kenny Dorham's swinger from 1963, Short Story, shows off Deep Blue's ability to weave together Latin rhythms, jazz lines and 1970s soul. Broom and Rockingham play beautifully, with Foreman providing a thick pedal bass-line cushion. On the final tune—the Ohio Players' Sweet Sticky Thing, from the funk group's 1975 album Honey—Deep Blue goes all out for a hot feel.
Have mercy. If you, too, love the soulful and caressing jazz organ sound of the 1970s, check this one out. I played the CD all day yesterday and it never got old. In fact, it's still on. Great to hear that the Hammond B3 has got its groove back.
JazzWax tracks: You can download Deep Blue Organ Trio's Folk Music at iTunes or you can buy it here.
To hear what Charles Earland was all about, download More Today Than Yesterday from the CD Black Talk, at iTunes. While you're there, check out Will You Love Me Tomorrow from Cookin' With the Mighty Burner and Stomp! from the album of the same name.
And if you're feeling flush, check out Leon Spencer's Legends of Acid Jazz here, which includes his 1974 release, Louisiana Slim. Spencer's treatment of the Carpenters' Close to You and Marvin Gaye's Mercy, Mercy Me are out of this world. Dig Amazon's samples of these two songs. His groovy originals are fabulous, too.