Dr. Lonnie Smith returns to Blue Note after 45 years. Few current labels can lay claim to such a strong back catalogue, and with the likes of Robert Glasper, Ambrose Akinmusire and GoGo Penguin, also have artists turning heads on the jazz and popular music scenes. This album fits nicely in to this context; at once it evokes the label’s heritage but thankfully does so in a contemporary setting. The first thing that struck me about this album is the quality of the sound. It’s so engaging, and with such depth you could be forgiven for thinking you’re sat in the middle of a live set. Hats off to label head Don Was for the production.
The album comprises of seven songs featuring regular Smith collaborators like John Ellis (tenor sax and bass clarinet) and Jonathan Kreisberg (guitar), together with guests and stable mates Robert Glasper and Joe Lovano.
Most of the tracks are up-tempo, whether it be the funk of the first track, ‘Play It Back’, or the soul jazz of his updated version of ‘Afrodesia’. The exception is the laid-back slow jam, ‘For Heaven’s Sake’, which I think just about edges it as my favourite track on the album. This has a decidedly modern feel to it that could easily fit in to a Robert Glasper or D’Angelo project.
I’m not so sure that returning to ‘Afrodesia’ is one of the album’s high points. 1970’s Afrodesia has a big, big sound, with echoing vocals and a hard funky rhythm, whereas this version sounds like a tamer, albeit more intimate, jam session.
Evolution contains two standards, ‘Straight No Chaser’ and ‘My Favorite Things’. Before listening I did wince a bit, as both of these are old, old chestnuts. For me ‘Straight No Chaser’ is the stronger one of the two, with a great organ groove interspersed with Kreisberg’s intricate guitar playing.
‘My Favorite Things’ on the other hand does not resonate so well. It starts and ends with what I can best describe as music from a low budget film score, which I imagine is intended to add something different, but does not really work for me. The meat of the track, the tune we all know and love is fine, but because of its familiarity, it is difficult to get too excited.
Hammond organist Lonnie Smith graced several of the mid-late 1960s Blue Note albums and, moreover, hit a creative high with the superb ‘Turning Point’ that featured a stunning brass section of trumpeter Lee Morgan, tenorist Bennie Maupin and trombonist Julian Priester plus some of the funkiest guitar licks imaginable from Melvin Sparks. While some may prefer the poppier hues of another album, ‘Think’, and the down home funk beats of Lou Donaldson’s ‘Alligator Boogaloo’ on which the keyboardist starred, Lonnie Smith’s sound was always a heavier one to the classic soul-jazz of ‘Big’ John Patton and namesake Jimmy Smith. In live performance, Lonnie Smith could certainly cut the mustard and ‘Live at Club Mozambique’ is an essential recording in his work. However, Smith was equally preoccupied by educational matters and became a PhD, hence his full title of Dr. Lonnie Smith. His return to the Blue Note label over forty years later is a most welcome one and he has among guest musicians tenorist Joe Lovano, now the longest-serving musician on the Blue Note label of any era, and fellow label mate and pianist, Robert Glasper. The inclusion of two drummers is another unusual approach to the session. In general, the numbers are overly long and detract from their individual impact. That said, Dr. Smith and associates impress on a near ten minute take of ‘African Suite’, that is a delicate Afro-Latin number with fine flute playing from John Ellis and where Smith plays more of a supportive role. The standard ‘My favourite things’ has seldom been covered by Hammond organists and the listener is initially left wondering if this is indeed any relation to the original with an extremely slow intro before the tempo suddenly shifts upwards several gears and the famous theme comes into focus. This writer likes the interplay between drummer, organist and guitarist here. Uptempo grooves predominate with the fourteen minute opener ‘Play it back’ typifying the sound and Glasper takes an extended solo with Smith relegated to a background accompanier. All but two compositions are originals and all would benefit from shorter and more concise interpretations. Joe Lovano takes off on an extended tenor excursion on a revisited ‘Afrodesia’. This number, the title track of a 1975 album by Smith was in fact the very first album on which a then youthful Lovano recorded. In recent decades Smith has recorded regularly and even performed with some of his first tenure at Blue Note label musicians such as altoist Lou Donaldson. Dr. Lonnie Smith and band will perform live at Ronnie Scott’s on February 24.