This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal.
Joey DeFrancesco is very young to be a jazz legend. But legend he is. Mention the Hammond B3 organ to any jazz fan and three names will come up – Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, who put the sound at the centre of soul-jazz in the 50s and 60s, and Mr D. “Well,” Joey says from home in the US, “I started young, that’s why people think of me alongside Jimmy or Jack. But I’m only 51,” he mock protests.
Starting young is right. He was four when he started playing the organ, nine by the time he could reach the foot pedals, although he was already playing in clubs alongside his musician father. He was such a keyboard prodigy that by 17 he was in Miles Davis’ band. Like many people who heard that husky voice on the line summoning them to New York, he thought it was friends spoofing him. “I must have hung up on him four times.”
But eventually he went to that terrifying audition where Miles pointed to the piano and said: “Play something for me.” So he did and he was in the group (this being the late eighties Tutu era). I asked if Miles had given him any advice. “Yeah. I was playing a solo one night and he wondered over and said: ‘Leave some holes.'” Miles being the master of space in a solo.
Joey had to leave, though. “I had done my own record by then and Columbia wanted me to go on the road to promote it. Miles was mad at first, but he understood.”
That first album and his subsequent ones, plus a punishing touring schedule, meant that Joey brought the Hammond back front and centre after a few years in the jazz doldrums. “There were some people who thought I was the first to play it in jazz. It was Fats Waller back in the early 40s who was the first in with Jitterbug Waltz! But it was sort of phased out for a while. You had synthesizers, which are way more portable, then bands like Weather Report with a very different sound, which I love, and rock bands had gone towards the piano. But the Hammond was still there. All I did was remind people how great it sounds.”
On his latest album – his 39th – More Music, Joey demonstrates he is more than just a keyboard whizz. He also plays trumpet and sax. Well. “When I was with Miles I was playing trumpet in secret. He was Miles, you know? But I played him one of his lines one day and he said: You sound like me. Do it again. So, I did and he said:Iit was better the first time. But he was very encouraging. He gave me some of his mouthpieces and a couple of Harmon mutes. I still miss him, man. The best times were when we weren’t on stage, just hangin’ out.” The trumpet is a hard mistress, but seeing Joey playing Hammond with one hand and trumpet with the other a few years ago, I couldn’t help thinking – that’s almost Miles I’m hearing, jamming from the after-life.
Joey’s new band, which features a second keyboard player/guitarist, which frees him to take sax solos, that again are remarkably adept considering he has only been playing a few years, will be at Ronnie Scott’s in a few weeks. Don’t worry, his obvious affection for other instruments will not overshadow what he is best known for – expect plenty of funky, gospely, soulful and swinging organ. In others words, the classic, compelling sound of a B3 in full flight.
Joey DeFrancesco plays four shows at Ronnie Scott’s on 27th/28th July: see https://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/