Saturday, September 12, 2015

The healer is in: Dr. Lonnie Smith and his powerhouse trio play the Jazz Kitchen

Dr. Lonnie Smith can always be counted upon to add some mystery and humor to his funk-defined Hammond B3 artistry. His second set for Indy Jazz Fest at the Jazz Kitchen Friday night was an apt demonstration.

Dr. Lonnie Smith is at one with the B3.
One of the few jazz musicians you can accurately say chooses to appear on stage in costume rather than just clothes, the turbaned, bearded and robed organist has a look almost as indelible as his sound. It all comes together as something more substantial than branding, topped by an affable stage personality and true spontaneity.

Any hints that "space is the place" for him as it was for the enigmatic Sun Ra are quickly dispelled. Smith goes his own way, but his music always speaks to the people on a broadly accessible level, with crucial assistance nowadays from guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake.

The "doctor" is more a nickname than a title, which befits a musician who doesn't stand on ceremony. Yet he in fact does "doctor up the music" — the phrase applied to him long ago that's the source of the first word of his performing identity. You need look no further than his trio's rollicking version of "Straight, No Chaser," a plump interpretation just about in the middle of Smith's second set.

Blake started things off at a blistering pace with a solo featuring bass-drum patter as nimble as anything he did with his sticks. The Thelonious Monk theme was first set atop the ruckus by Kreisberg several minutes in. At length, there was a segue to a wry art-rock version of the tune; if the British group Yes of sainted memory had had Monk in its book, it might have sounded something like this. There were delicately applied quotes along the way: I heard a phrase or two of "Freedom Jazz Dance" and "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," as well as hints of other Monk pieces besides the evergreen "SNC."  It amounted to an amusement-park ride hurtling along the well-maintained rails of a classic.

As a teen, Smith fronted a rhythm-and-blues vocal group in Buffalo, N.Y. He honed his voice also in church, and vocalism has continued to be a part of his musical armory.  It came out immediately in "Back Track" and floated along in gravelly splendor over "Frame for the Blues." Slow, roiling triplets underlay that performance, with well-timed smears and chordal stabs from the Hammond B3.

Smith gives his sidemen lots of room, and on Friday they always took advantage of it. The trio romped in an open field more than it seemed to refurbish a familiar room. Kreisberg's long, flashy phrases were always integrated into a satisfying whole.  Blake's titanic drumming never failed to complement the melody-driven instruments, and he commanded enough variety of sound to help the good doctor lay healing hands on every corner of the wide sound world he explores.

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