Joey DeFrancesco’s “Key of the Universe”

DeFrancesco001

WP 2019 - 2IN THE KEY OF THE UNIVERSE / DeFRANCESCO: Inner Being.2,8 Vibrations in Blue.3,8 Awake and Blissed.4 It Swung Wide Open.4 In the Key of the Universe.4,6,8 And So it Is.1 Soul Perspective.2,4 A Path Through the Noise.1,4 Easier to Be.1,4 P. SANDERS-L. THOMAS: The Creator Has a Master Plan5-7 / Joey DeFrancesco, org/kbd/1tpt; Troy Roberts, 2s-sax/3a-sax/4t-sax/5bs; Pharoah Sanders, 6t-sax/7voc; Billy Hart, dm; 8Sammy Figueroa, perc / Mack Avenue MAC1147

Master musician Joey DeFrancesco can play not only the organ but also the trumpet and other keyboards; although he has mostly made his name in soul and R&B-styled jazz, he also plays more standard and open forms of the music; and he is a master at all he touches. Ordinarily, soul-styled jazz is not my thing, but DeFrancesco is just so talented, and has such highly skilled musicians on this set as Troy Roberts, Pharoah Sanders and Sammy Figueroa, that I just had to hear what kind of music they made.

At first I was afraid that I was in for one of those “ambient jazz” CDs that seem to clutter the musical landscape nowadays, but fear not. DeFrancesco, bless his heart, doesn’t like ambient jazz any more than I do, thus most of the tracks here are in a fairly good groove and swing.

We start off with Inner Being which, like several of the pieces here, does indeed begin with soft, ambient sounds before moving into real jazz. Troy Roberts’ entrance on soprano sax almost sounds like Kenny G, but in the second chorus he plays in unison with DeFrancesco and the music becomes more interesting, and his second solo is anything but Kenny G-like, using some outside chord positions and swinging fairly hard. DeFrancesco’s first solo, by contrast, is fairly minimal in terms of notes except for some double-time passages, but he swings and is always an interesting improviser. When Roberts re-enters, he plays a chorus in which the rhythm is fragmented with the accents moved around, then the finale.

Vibrations in Blue, which starts with some strangely Middle Eastern-sounding mode, features Roberts on alto. His solo approach on this instrument is similar to his soprano playing except that he introduces a somewhat harder edge to the instrument, including some buzzed notes, and leans even more towards a funky “Blue Note” sort of style. De Francesco is absolutely amazing on organ here: what incredible chops this man has, and what a vivid imagination, and thank goodness, his music is funk-blues-oriented but NOT rock-oriented. Bless him!

Awake and Blissed is more bop-oriented, played at a brisk tempo and moving Roberts down the scale from alto to tenor sax. Here, too, one begins to appreciate the sound foundation laid down by DeFrancesco on the bass range of his electric keyboard. This man can really swing, and in the next track, It Swung Wide Open, he and the whole group moves the bop feel up a couple of notches. DeFrancesco plays so much on his keyboard instruments that you have a hard time realizing that this is just a trio and not a quartet. He plays a chase chorus with Roberts, again on tenor, that is simply spectacular.

In the Key of the Universe includes both Robert and Pharoah Sanders on tenors. It’s an unusual, simple but snaky riff tune in a medium tempo, and Sammy Figueroa is also back on percussion behind drummer Billy Hart. Sanders is the first up as soloist, and I was gratified to hear that he has modified his most outré tendencies of the late 1960s through the ‘80s, returning to his earlier, more musically logical playing style without sacrificing feeling or imagination. Inspired by Sanders’ groove, DeFrancesco really digs into his own chorus with flurries of notes interspersed with bluesy chords. The Creator Has a Master Plan is a Sanders original; he is the only tenor player here, and also does the vocal honors as, surprisingly, Troy Roberts moves over to play bass. It’s a slow, soulful piece, surprisingly melodic in a Gospel music sense for someone who made his name as a free jazz maverick. His vocal is minimal and confined to one chorus, but his tenor playing is rich and filled with nuance. Later on, he introduces some gurgling rhythmic effects.

The slow, moody And So It Is opens with DeFrancesco playing muted trumpet and keyboards simultaneously in tandem with Sanders, who takes the first solo, one of his very best. Roberts is again on bass. After the organ solo, DeFrancesco again plays organ and trumpet together, the latter in tandem with Sanders who then takes another solo. His later playing on this track is also very fine. Soul Perspective is a quasi-Latin tune in a nice, relaxed medium tempo, and here Roberts double-tracks himself on tenor and soprano saxes, particularly in the opening theme, although his solo is on tenor, again a bit gritty and hard-edged. DeFrancesco’s organ solo, by contrast, is all played in double time and full of interesting phrases. In the last chorus, which fades out, DeFrancesco and Roberts again engage in a chase chorus.

A Path Through the Noise, the slowest piece on this CD, is a very nice ballad on which Roberts plays lovely tenor while DeFrancesco backs him on organ with drums. Then comes a rarity, a DeFrancesco trumpet solo on open horn, also very lovely and reminiscent of Chet Baker, which he immediately follows with a brief organ solo in double time, after which Roberts returns. In the finale, Easier to Be, we again get a soft, ambient opening before moving into a Latin beat with DeFrancesco doubling on trumpet and organ, the former stating the theme along with Roberts on tenor. Then DeFrancesco plays rhythmic organ while Roberts plays a really nice tenor solo combining a bit of Stan Getz with some of Cannonball Adderly.

I very seldom review jazz organ records and even more rarely keep them in my collection, but this one is a keeper in every way. The only other contemporary jazz organist I’ve heard who is anywhere near DeFrancesco’s class is the amazing Barbara Dennerlein. No one else even comes close.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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