Interview: Dr. Lonnie Smith

Hammond organ master returns to Blue Note with Evolution
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From the very first note of “Play It Back,” the lead track on Dr. Lonnie Smith’s new Blue Note album Evolution, you know you’re in for a wild ride. Like a funkified lightning bolt from above, the song pulses with kinetic electrical energy, pitting Smith’s audacious organ licks against an ensemble of two drummers, a horn section, and the blues-drenched piano of Nu-Jazz hero Robert Glasper. Let the buyer beware: This ain’t your grandparents’ organ album!

At 73 years old, Smith is as dynamic a live performer today as he was back in the 1960s and ’70s when he came to fame accompanying legendary artists such as George Benson and Lou Donaldson. Fluent in every style from blues to boogaloo and beyond, Smith coaxes near otherworldly textures from the tonewheels of his organ. One minute, he caresses the manuals of his Hammond B-3 with heartfelt care, and the next he’s in full prayer meeting mode, like a preacher possessed. If you’re looking for musical trouble, you’ve come to the right place. Because the Doctor is in and he’s ready to operate!

Smith hadn’t recorded for Blue Note Records for more than four decades—that is, until longtime fan and label president Don Was heard him live and brought him back to the storied imprint. Just ahead of the album’s release, Smith spoke to me via phone about his long association with Blue Note and his unique approach to the mighty B-3.

Evolution is your first recording for Blue Note records in 45 years. Can you talk about what the label means to you and how it feels to return to it?

For me, it feels like being home and, at the same time, like I never was away. It’s like having a first love that you always will love. I feel as if we’ve always been thinking of each other. Blue Note meant so much to me in the beginning. I’ll never forget the wonderful times I had there. It’s such a legendary place, and even after all these years, it still stands for something that’s true. So it feels great to be home.

How old were you when you first recorded for them?

I was in my early twenties. I had just started playing, and it was just gigantic for me to sign to Blue Note. If you can imagine, at that time every musician on the label was a star and really meant something to the music. I was actually recording for John Hammond and Columbia Records at that time. Back in those days, we would read those big, beautiful Blue Note album covers over and over again like you would a book. You almost felt as if you were there with those musicians on the cover! I loved the sound of those records too; the way they sounded when they spun around on a turntable. So when they called me and asked me to record for them, it was totally unexpected. I tried not to get too excited in case it didn’t work out, but inside I was just exploding. It was the beginning of being inducted into a very prestigious company.

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Can you talk about your introduction to the organ back in your hometown of Buffalo, New York?

A lot of organists at that time were pianists first, but I actually started out as a vocalist. I remember hearing the organ in church and just loving the sound of it. But I never thought I would end up playing it. I was singing gospel music in church, and my brothers were playing guitar, bass, and drums. Sometimes I would sing songs with them. They were having so much fun that I wanted to be up there playing with them! That’s how it all began.

So I started to going to Kubera’s Music Store in Buffalo every day. One time, the store’s owner Art Kubera came over and said to me, “Why do you come in here every day and stay until closing time?” I said to him, “Sir, if I had an instrument, I could learn how to play it, I could work, and I could make a living.” That store didn’t even sell organs. It sold accordions and other types of instruments. But I kept coming back.

One day, as he was getting to close the store up, he said to me, “Come with me.” He took me to his office in the back and when he opened the door, there was a Hammond B-3 organ with a Leslie speaker, sitting there staring me right in the face. It was like the gates of Heaven opened up! I went over and sat at it, and he said to me, “If you can take it out of here, it’s yours.” So my brothers came over, and we took it home in a pickup truck while it was snowing! I’ll never forget that. Art Kubera was my angel.

When I first got that organ home, I didn’t know how it worked. It had so many dials and knobs, and I could only get one sound out of it. I finally figured out how to start it, and then I called some people who showed me how to work it. But I didn’t want to take it out of my house. It was so beautiful that I was scared of scratching it up! Soon after, I started getting jobs playing the organ, and I started listening to as many organists as I could.

What organists influenced you when you were first starting out?

I always loved the sound of the organ, and I listened to people like Wild Bill Davis, Milt Buckner, and Bill Doggett. But Jimmy Smith was a big influence as well. He took the organ to another level. I remember the day that a friend of mine came across the street and said to me, “You’ve got to hear this record.” So I went over to his house and he put on Jimmy’s album Midnight Special. It was just beautiful, and I fell in love with the organ all over again.

I listened to all kinds of music and musicians. I loved singers like Dinah Washington, Jimmy Scott and Nat “King” Cole. I also loved John Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Art Tatum, Erroll Garner, and on and on. Even if you don’t particularly care for someone’s playing, it’s good to listen anyway because everyone has something to say. I think every kind of music is beautiful, whether it’s jazz, rock, or Metallica!

When talking about your personal style on the organ, you have said, “It’s an extension of my being. It’s a part of my lens. It breathes for me; it speaks for me. It’s like electricity—a fire that goes through my body.” How did you develop your own sound on the instrument?

I think it’s about life itself. I always tell listeners and students who ask me about this to “play life.” Everyone has their own style. You’re never going to be able to do what someone else does as well as they do it. But everyone has a beautiful, important story to tell. So tell your story. Don’t just play notes. Ask yourself, “What do I have to say for myself?”

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When I saw that the first track on your new album Evolution entitled “Play It Back” is 14 minutes long, I thought to myself, “What producer in today’s attention-deficit-plagued world would have the guts to open a record with a song that long?” The answer is Don Was!

[Laughs.] You’re right about that! It just doesn’t happen. But Don gets it. He’s great to work with in the studio. He’s right there and just wants you to be you. Don understands the history of music, but he also keeps up with what’s happening today. He knows what’s going on in the world, and he’s open to change. He’s bringing a lot of beautiful things to Blue Note.

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When people make records today, it’s very different from the way we used to make them years ago. We’d go into the studio for around three hours, sometimes maybe six hours, and we’d just play. That would be it. You’d make the record, and then let it go. Today, records are manufactured to be perfect, with producers changing every little thing. They sound beautiful, but they’re made almost like Frankenstein! But Don just wants the music to work and feel good. That’s what it’s all about.

“Play It Back” is so funky it almost blew my computer speakers apart, with its double drummers, sneaky guitar riffs, searing horn section and Robert Glasper on piano. It’s no small feat to pull off this kind of instrumentation on an organ record.

I always wanted to record with two drummers but I never got the chance to. This time around, I told Don what I wanted to do, and he understood. I got that idea years back when I was in Detroit. At that time, I didn’t have a second drummer, so I had my drummer play along with a drum machine, but it was difficult to get the sound I wanted because a machine is stiff. I still have that sound in my head, and I’m not letting it go!

I love the interplay between you and Robert Glasper on that song. It’s like the intersection of funk, church, blues, and boogaloo!

I loved it too. It was wonderful. It’s always hard to get the musicians you want for a particular project because everyone is constantly busy. It reminds me of that famous photograph of jazz musicians called “A Great Day in Harlem.” I wanted to get musicians that would give the right feeling to each track. I loved having Robert on the album. I wanted to do more with him, but we only had time to do that one track. It came out really nice.

You use an incredible amount of space in your playing: There’s a sense that you want the groove to percolate, even through your soloing. In the words of the 1980s band The System, the mantra is, “Don’t Disturb This Groove!”

To me, music plays itself. James Brown proved this over and over again. The song is already there. You don’t have to do anything to destroy something that’s beautiful. [Smith hums the melody to the Billy Strayhorn song “Lush Life” to demonstrate.]

Just because you worked on a bunch of things and want to show them off, there’s no need to mess something up that’s already good. That’s why I don’t practice what I’m going to play live. I play in the moment and what’s going on at the time. It’s like cooking or painting. Sometimes, you need to know when to leave something alone.

[Jazz saxophonist] Joe Lovano guests on the song “Afrodesia,” which is another homecoming of sorts. He guested on your 1975 album of the same name. What was it like revisiting that song with him some 40 years later?

I worked with Joe when he was young and just out of school. The amazing thing was, Joe came in and played that song totally differently than he did when we first recorded it together. He understood what I was trying to do on the record, and he was open to it.

Your comping behind guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg on the song “For Heaven’s Sake” twists and turns, breathing in an almost human way. Can you talk about your comping concept on the Hammond? You always seem to accompany the other members of your ensemble without stepping on them.

When I play with other people, first of all I want to hear them, and also I don’t want to stifle them or “choke” them out. It’s like if someone is trying to speak and you keep stabbing and interrupting them. They’re trying to get a note out, and you’re busy poking them. So you have to listen and not just think of yourself. It’s about supporting the music.

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Are you always thinking of changing your drawbar settings and sound by using the expression pedal and other devices on the organ?

It depends on the song and the sound I’m going for. And you hit the nail right on the head. It’s called an expression pedal for a reason: It’s not a volume pedal. It’s there to help you get the sound to speak in a certain way, not just to hit people full blast.

One of my main settings is having the first three drawbars out, and the last one either a little out or all the way full out. In terms of percussion, I use it and also change the settings around. I’ll use the chorus and vibrato, but a lot of times, I’ll have the Leslie speaker either on Fast or Stop. I don’t like the slow Leslie setting, except on things like ballads. It sounds beautiful on them.

How do you approach using the bass pedals on the organ? Are you walking full lines with them? Pumping them along with your left hand?

To me, if you’re not playing bass with the pedals, it doesn’t sound full. It sounds like something’s missing. Sometimes I walk the bass with both my left hand and the organ bass pedals, or sometimes I walk it with my left hand, punching the pedals at the same time. So it’s about using a combination of things.

The song “My Favorite Things” starts with orchestral-tinged keyboard work. What keyboard did you use on that one?

I used a Korg Kronos on that one.

What other kinds of gear are you using these days in your studio?

I use a lot of Korg products, so I have a bunch of their keyboards. I also have a Nektar [MIDI controller], a Hammond XK-2 and a Hammond B-3 that I have in my bedroom! In terms of computers, I use Apple Logic Pro and MainStage with my Mac computer.

How close do you think today’s portable organ simulators and “clonewheels” get to the actual B-3 sound?

I think they’ve gotten close, and they’re bound to get even better. But I don’t think they will ever have exactly the same sound as a real Hammond organ. Just like Farfisas, Wurlitzers, and Fender Rhodes pianos, the Hammond has its own sound. When you start taking elements out of the sound, it doesn’t sound quite “human.” The organ has a lot of noise and imperfections to it. When you try to remove those things, just like they did by taking the noise out of [vinyl] records with CDs, you take part of its sound away. But I love Hammond, and I think they get as close as they can with their portable organs to the sound of a real B-3.

What’s the best advice you can give someone hoping to make as much of an impact on their instrument as you have on yours?

Love what you do and have a passion. If you play to enjoy the music for what it is, it will take you where you need to go.

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BLUE NOTE’S DON WAS ON THE RETURN OF DR. LONNIE SMITH

“Back in the 1970s when I was in my twenties, I was living Detroit, Michigan and playing any kind of gig I could find,” Blue Note president and Evolution album producer Don Was says. “I played everything from piano bars to jazz trio gigs. I even got booked once with a folk singer to open for Black Sabbath in Toledo, Ohio—with acoustic guitar, bass, and congas. We didn’t even make it to the second song, because the drummer was bleeding too much from all the things they were pelting at us!

“At that time, Dr. Lonnie Smith was sort of operating out of Detroit, and I would go hear him play at different venues,” Was continues. “I remember a number of things that were really striking about his playing even back then. First of all, Lonnie has an incredibly deep groove. Many people got their first taste of it on albums like Alligator Boogaloo by [saxophonist] Lou Donaldson.

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“You could see that he was digging into a funk pocket that was deeper than what other people were doing on the instrument. And it really got over in Detroit. Lonnie was on the radio and playing lots of places. To me he was the cat. I loved the way he worked the drawbars, and the sounds he came up with. The real masters of the organ seem to keep one hand on the drawbars at all times. It’s a dying art form, almost like the Joshua Light Show. It always keeps moving. So I loved the sonic picture he painted, and as a bass player myself, I thought he was the funkiest bass player around. I would put him up there with “Bootsy” Collins, Larry Graham or any of the other guys. What he does with his foot and left hand is just incredible. And melodically he just knocks me out too. I love his choice of notes and his melodicism. It’s heavy and evocative, and it creates a lot of images. So I followed his records after he originally left Blue Note. And I dug a lot of them. I thought he was always making good music.

“In 2013, I took my two youngest kids to the Monterey Jazz Festival in California,” Was continues. “We sat about a foot behind the stage, and Lonnie was just f—king amazing! He was vibrant and energetic, and he played this one song that was so musically terrifying, my kids were looking at me, scared from what he was doing! So that just sealed the deal for me.

“In running and producing albums for Blue Note, I try to sign artists whose instincts I trust. So Lonnie and I started talking about making music together. And finally we agreed to make it happen.

“Being a producer on the album was mostly about letting Lonnie feel like he could do anything he wanted to do, and go anywhere he wanted to without any commercial concerns,” Was explains. “I just wanted him to be himself. The whole process was very natural. We actually cut a lot more in the studio that’s not on the album, and we plan on having another session later this year. So Lonnie has a home at Blue Note for as long as he wants!”