Since its emergence in the late ’50s, organ soul has been one of the most reliable and accessible pleasures in jazz, but a new recording adds substance to the style without sacrificing the charm. In the early days of the style, the high-pitched sound of the organ was typically offset by stinging guitar licks and applied to a repertoire that often came straight from pop radio. Organ masters like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff, among others, were virtuosos at abstracting blues and gospel riffs and putting a fresh spin on Motown, Woodstock-era rock hits, and other pop classics. It was a subgenre that often seemed destined to sign, seal and deliver heavy-rotation hits to the declining number of jazz radio stations.
Dr. Lonnie Smith (he’s neither a physician nor a Ph.D, but the “Dr.” has preceded his name for decades) got his start during that era, and he has remained a popular performer since. The 73-year-old’s new recording, “Evolution,” showcases a variety of organ-soul stylings without sounding like a pastiche or an academic survey.
It marks the Doctor’s return to the Blue Note label, where he recorded frequently in the ’60s and ’70s, not only as a sideman on such albums as “Alligator Bogaloo,” a recording by saxophonist Lou Donaldson that is a soul-jazz classic, but as the leader. “Evolution” is a mix of originals and jazz standards; it begins with “Play It Back,” a tune the Doctor first recorded for Blue Note on 1970’s “Live at Club Mozambique.” This rendition features pianist Robert Glasper as a guest star, and Mr. Glasper, an accomplished and diverse pianist, gets into the groove immediately, quoting the Thom Bell/Linda Creed soul evergreen “People Make the World Go Round” to launch his solo. Saxophonist Joe Lovano, who performed on some of the Doctor’s early recordings as a leader, makes a guest appearance to revisit “Afrodesia,” a piece the two men recorded in the early ’70s. This time, Mr. Lovano plays the mezzo-soprano saxophone, adding new texture and tone to the style.
Thelonious Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser” and the Rodgers and Hammerstein nugget “My Favorite Things” are the highlights of the recording. The Doctor, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake burn through the Monk tune, navigating the tricky progressions with ease. The Doctor’s treatment of “My Favorite Things” is majestic, and it makes allusions to several jazz takes on the tune, most notably John Coltrane’s.
Commercial jazz radio all but vanished in the ’70s, but organ soul has maintained its popularity. It has continued to find audiences in all factions of the jazz community and it has gained a following among the jam-band crowd. With “Evolution,” Dr. Lonnie Smith demonstrates the versatility and currency of the style.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.