Organ Donor

Joey DeFrancesco: Widely recognized as jazz' finest organist. (courtesy photo)

Keyboard virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco gives jazz a B-3 injection

When Joey DeFrancesco was growing up, there were two opposing movements among jazz keyboard players. Trendy fusionists bought banks of synthesizers and explored their seemingly endless sonic possibilities, while a new generation of traditionalists stubbornly clung to the purity of the acoustic piano.

DeFrancesco chose neither side. The 32-year-old Philadelphia native's father, "Papa John" DeFrancesco had established himself as a local organ master and he raised Joey on the classic jazz-organ records by Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff.

For the young DeFrancesco, the only keyboard instrument that mattered was the organ, namely the warm, soulful tones of the Hammond B-3, identified with everyone from Smith and McGriff to Booker T. Jones. DeFrancesco started noodling on the organ at age four, quickly teaching himself the basics. He says the piano never held the same fascination for him.

"I loved the sound, the attack, the warmth, everything about it," DeFrancesco says of the B-3. "It was like a human voice. It was my voice."

"I loved the sound, the attack, everything about `the B-3`. It was like a human voice. It was my voice."
— Joey DeFrancesco
Over the course of six well-received albums on Concord Records, DeFrancesco has established himself as modern jazz's finest organist. In 2003, he finished first among organists in Downbeat Magazine's Critics Poll, and he's currently up for a "Best Jazz Instrumental Solo" Grammy for his work on the track "All Or Nothing At All." Most tellingly, Hammond, which had not produced a B-3 since 1975, recently introduced a new model of the classic instrument inspired - and enthusiastically endorsed - by DeFrancesco.

With his black, slicked-back hair, rotund build, rectangular facial growth and ever-present dark shades, DeFrancesco resembles a youthful Wolfman Jack. While his appearance conveys an intimidating toughness (which he plays up with a Mafioso sneer on the cover of his 1999 album Goodfellas), in conversation DeFrancesco comes off as spacy and affable.

A child keyboard prodigy, DeFrancesco started gigging around Philly by the age of 10, and at the tender age of 16, he joined Miles Davis' band. He credits his father with encouraging his musicianship without ever pushing him to play.

"I started playing on my own, but he taught me too," DeFrancesco says. "He guided me in the right direction, but never with a lot of pressure. He let me have fun with it. I learned a lot of my playing from listening, and with the stuff he helped me with, it was the perfect combination of both."

Joey DeFrancesco

8 & 10pm
Saturday, February 7

Luna Fine Music Club
6740 San Pedro

DeFrancesco played with Miles in the late '80s and appeared on the trumpeter's Amandla and Live Around the World recordings. Coming into the Davis band as a teenager anxious to display his mammoth chops, DeFrancesco quickly grasped the value of restraint.

"I learned that less is more," he says, "although I still seem to play a whole lot of notes. But there's a way to do that too. It's like, if you listen to Coltrane, Trane's always running a lot of things. But he played a ballad so tender, you know? But a lot of notes doesn't always mean feeling.

"You've got to have feeling when you're running those notes. Some guys don't have a lot of technique but they sound great and know how to use what they've got so well, they'll make somebody with a lot of technique sound like shit."

With regard to Davis, DeFrancesco warmly recalls that he made "every note mean something, even when he hit wrong ones."

In 1989, with Columbia Records dangling a contract in front of him, DeFrancesco reluctantly decided to leave Davis' band. When the subject comes up, the tone of regret in DeFrancesco's raspy voice is apparent.

"He was pretty hurt," DeFrancesco recalls. "I had to leave. My first record was coming out, and we had this promotional thing going. I should have stayed with him. Who gives a shit? It wouldn't have been bad. But I was young and I thought, 'Oh, my career, my career,' and I split. But I was fortunate enough to have the time I did with him, because we became very tight. So that alone was incredible."

"I was fortunate enough to have the time with `Miles Davis`, because we became very tight."
— Joey DeFrancesco
For his latest album, Falling in Love Again, DeFrancesco enlisted the musical services of another close friend, actor Joe Pesci, whose high, feminine timbre echoes the great balladeer Jimmy Smith. Although he sang and played guitar in clubs in the 1960s, Pesci's acting career long ago eclipsed his attempts to establish credibility as a singer. Sensing that his name could draw the wrong kind of audience for the album, Pesci assumed the pseudonym Joe Doggs. DeFrancesco gamely stuck with the ruse as long as he could, telling JazzTimes last September that "Joe `Pesci` and Joe Doggs are dear friends. They know each other, but Joe Pesci can't sing and Joe Doggs can."

Five months later, DeFrancesco doesn't hesitate to come clean. "Yeah, it's Joe Pesci," he says. "It's pretty much out now. His first love was always singing. We were good buddies, really tight. He said, 'I don't want them to know it's me because it won't be right.' So he wanted to be establish a different name and get the respect from people without coming just for Joe Pesci - they're coming for the music."

Although the album includes such guests as Tonight Show bandleader Kevin Eurbanks, DeFrancesco is supporting the album on tour with his usual trio, and even showcasing his own underrated singing voice. During his brief respites from the road, this Philly kid catches up on sleep in his adopted hometown of Cave Creek, Arizona.

"I love the weather," he says. "Right now back in Philadelphia is snowing and freezing, which is nice for about an hour. So I like it here, but I'm gone most of the time." •

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