As a 17-year-old guest on a television show in his native Philadelphia in 1988, organist Joey DeFrancesco caught the eye of the show’s featured attraction, trumpeter Miles Davis. Within weeks the teen was touring with the legendary jazz master. A debut album on Columbia Records soon followed and DeFrancesco hasn’t slowed down since, building on his burgeoning legend as the best Hammond B3 player on the planet. No, seriously, he is the best Hammond player on the planet, which by our estimation makes him the best Hammond player in the universe.
Grammy-nominated with more than 30 albums to his credit, including records and/or tours with such luminaries as Ray Charles, Arturo Sandoval, John Scofield, David Sanborn and his mentor, Jimmy Smith, DeFrancesco will perform with his eponymous trio on Thursday, May 1 at the Acadiana Center for the Arts. Tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show range from $30-$40.
Check out the embedded video below of DeFrancesco in action. In the meantime, here’s Joey DeFrancesco on the organ, from a telephone conversation with The IND on Tuesday:
WHY THE HAMMOND?
My father played the organ so when I was coming up as a kid we had one in the house and all the great jazz organ records. So, I was naturally attracted to the sound. It just kind of stuck in my head. I loved it, so I just started playing around with the organ — pretty young, when I was four.
The Hammond organ, they started making them in 1934, and it was made as an affordable organ for churches because pipe organs were quite expensive. So Laurens Hammond, the inventor, came up with this idea for an electric organ that didn’t require massive amounts of pipes and stuff like that, so it was more cost-effective.
That’s what it was intended for, but it got in the hands of popular music, so some of the earlier people — Fats Waller and Ethel Smith, Jesse Crawford — were playing in theaters and movies and things. It had a very fast attack, and the difference between that and the pipe organ, it’s got a very slow attack. So [the Hammond] was perfect for playing pop music.
When it got in hands of somebody like Wild Bill Davis, who was the first guy to play it in that kind of style, and Jimmy Smith was the main guy that started this whole thing — it’s very aggressive but at the same time it can be very sweet and an unlimited variety of sounds you can get out of it. It can be a very funky instrument, so it was perfect for jazz, blues, rock, any type of popular music.
People like to call it a B3 because that’s the most popular model that was used on stage, but really anything that was made between 1934 up till 1975 had this mechanism in it called a tone wheel generator, and that’s the reason they sound like they did, and there were a lot of models — not just the B3, but the B3 was the most popular. So, they stopped making that type of instrument in ’75. It was a very heavy instrument and hard to transport, and it is to this day.
YOU’RE CREDITED WITH REVIVING THE POPULARITY OF THE HAMMOND, RIGHT?
I realized [early in my career] that deciding to play that instrument was not a mainstream thing. In fact, when I did my first record for Columbia I was really excited. Dr. George Butler, who was the A&R man at the time who signed me, I think he felt that this is pretty amazing. I was 17 years old, playing the blues like this, playing funky, so it made a big splash; it really did bring the organ back strong.
I think the organ is more respected at this time as a viable jazz instrument more than ever. Because before, as great as [my predecessors] were, they always got pigeonholed into something where — not that there’s anything wrong with it — more of a blues-based funk kind of thing. But they never got the straight-ahead jazz police attention and now, well, because of me and guys that have come after me — very serious about playing this music and doing something with it — it just made a very strong comeback and there’s guys coming out of the woodwork all the time.
BECAUSE YOUR GIGS ARE SO SPREAD OUT NOW AND YOU OFTEN TRAVEL BY PLANE, YOU NO LONGER HAUL AN ORGAN WITH YOU ON TOUR BUT PREFER TO RELY ON VENUES TO PROVIDE THE INSTRUMENT, OR YOU BRING A SYNTHESIZER. IS QUALITY CONTROL AN ISSUE?
There’s a whole lot of they call them clones now — digital replications of the original that are quite good. One that I use now where there’s not an excellent-condition Hammond available, I use a Nord C2D — very small, light-weight; you can throw it on the airplane or in the car or whatever. But it gets the sound you need. I mean, if people couldn’t see the stage they wouldn’t know the difference. But people like to see that big instrument up there. There’s a romantic thing about that too in people’s heads.
But taking a B-3 around is serious business. Nowadays it’s gotten a little bit better. Because of the resurgence people have gotten more interested in making sure their organs are working better, restored. But there’s still a whole lot of garbage out there.
The thing is, the newest [Hammond B3] was made in 1975, you know, that’s the last one that was made. So you’re already talking about something that’s almost 40 years old.