At WSJ on the new Dr. Lonnie Smith disc


‘Evolution’ by Dr. Lonnie Smith returns to the Blue Note label with an album that reveals the enduring appeal of organ soul.

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’s new album is ‘Evolution.’ ENLARGE
Dr. Lonnie Smith’s new album is ‘Evolution.’ Photo: Mathieu Bitton

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.

About jmartin437

I've worked in and around the world of high end cheese for 27 years. I've been everything from a department manager who hired and fired and trained staffs to a weekend warrior who shows up ties on an apron the middle of a rush and talks to customers and cleans up the place. I enjoy it all, and I especially like my current situation conducting informal seminars about cheese at area bars and in class at the 92nd St. Y. The current schedule is always up at In addition I conduct private events that are perfect to lead off birthday parties for foodies and sommeliers and also they make great entertainment for corporate team building events and associates meetings at law firms. In addition, I've been a freelance journalist for 27 years. Currently my profiles of leading musicians and filmmakers appear in the Wall Street Journal and I also wrote about sports for the Root, and for five loooong years, which included the entirety of the Isiah Thomas Knicks era, I wrote about the NBA for the New York Sun. I enjoyed writing about basketball so much that I now do it here at rotations for free.
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