The good doctor is back! Not that he ever went away, but he’s back at his spiritual home of Blue Note – the label for which he recorded his breakthrough solo albums in the late 1960s.
To mark the occasion, he is joined by two very special guests – saxophonist Joe Lovano, who joined Lonnie’s band back in 1975, straight after Berklee, and pianist Robert Glasper, who was glad to lend a hand.
The album is entitled Evolution, which might sound strange, given that Smith’s groove-driven sound has not altered that radically over the years. In fact, whilst Larry Young took the organ to the next level in the late 1960s, taking it away from funk towards fusion, Lonnie Smith was arguably Jimmy Smith’s spiritual heir, his playing maintaining the jazz-funk tradition that he helped to pioneer.
But there is a degree of evolution on display here; the first two tracks, Play It Back and Afrodesia, are old Lonnie Smith compositions that have been reinvented here, performed by a much larger band and given a fresh coat of paint. And if anything, they sound even better than before!
Play It Back originally featured on his live album recorded in 1970, Live At Club Mozambique. The tune is given a complete makeover here, the foot-tapping groove driven by not one, but two drummers – Joe Dyson and Jonathan Blake. There’s an fine horn riff, courtesy of Keyon Harrold on trumpet and John Ellis on tenor saxophone, whilst Dr. Lonnie Smith starts off in support mode. Robert Glasper takes the opening solo, and sounds at ease in the funk setting, before handing over to Harold, who plays with real vibrancy. Ellis is up next, with gentle support from guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, before the leader comes in, demonstrating that he still has to power to thrill with his playing. The tune builds to an almighty climax, with Glasper’s piano buried beneath the organ and horns. It’s a great way to start the album.
Afrodesia, from the 1975 album of the same name, continues in a similar vein. Again, there’s a fabulous two-drummer beat, a simple horn riff, but this time Kreisberg plays some mean wah-wah guitar, giving the tune a 1970s vibe. Joe Lovano plays a magnificent solo, before handing over to Maurice Brown, who takes over on trumpet on this track. The organ solo is played over just guitar and drums, and Smith responds with another delicious solo, showing he’s lost none of his touch.
For Heaven’s Sake is the first of the new tunes on offer, and slows the pace. Kreisberg plays a more prominent role here on guitar, and the horns – again featuring Joe Lovano, positively purr. When the guitar and organ combine as Smith solos, one is reminded of his work with George Benson back in the 1960s. And that can’t be a bad thing.
Monk’s Straight, No Chaser is taken at a frenetic pace, driven by Jonathan Blake on drums. We’re back into organ trio format here, but given the speed of the playing and the fine solos, this is no tired rehash.
Talk About This is another new composition, which opens with some funky guitar work and a horn riff that tells you we’re back in jazz-funk territory. Just after the one-minute mark, there’s some ensemble chanting, urging us to ‘talk about this, not talk about that’, which offers hints of 1970s James Brown. Maurice Brown plays a mean, dirty trumpet solo, making this the best of the new tunes.
It’s hard to make My Favorite Things sound shiny and new, but that’s what Dr. Lonnie Smith manages to do. Back into trio format, there’s a subdued, keyboard driven intro, which sounds like a movie soundtrack. The band starts the tune at a slow pace, before exploding into action, Smith playing with real fire.
The album closes with African Suite, the third and final new tune. It opens with a stew of percussion, organ, guitar, chanting and sound effects, but the tune itself if something of a disappointment, and doesn’t really fit with the jazz-funk that precedes it, in spite of some fine flute by John Ellis.
But really, this is a minor complaint. I’ve heard most of Dr. Lonnie Smith’s recent output, and would say that this is his most thrilling, vibrant album in a number of years. Part of this is down to the Glasper and Lovano’s presence, and part of it is the use of a larger band than he’s had in some years, which add an additional dimension to the sound. Credit should also go to producer, Don Was, who clearly understands Smith’s influence on jazz-funk, and the importance of capturing that sound in full.