Vanessa Rodrigues: Organ Pipe Dreams

Ed Hamilton interviews the unheralded jazz organist in Montreal

Women organists are extremely rare while women pianists in the past have been in abundance: Marian McPartland; Dorothy Donegan; Hazel Scott; Sarah Vaughn; Mary Lou Williams; and today, Diana Krall; Jerry Allen; Rene Rosnes, Eliane Elias. None of these women ever played organ. Jennelle Hawkins and Shirley Scott are two of the few jazz women who played organ. And now, Vanessa Rodrigues has been crowned North America’s Queen of the Organ.

Vanessa is from Edmonton, Alberta and started playing organ at 19. She first heard the pipe organ and fell in love with the sound and learned how to play by listening and practicing on a B3 in a friend’s basement. Vanessa’s a young lady who plays the Jimmy Smith-B3 organ in a mixolydia style of Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Dr. Lonnie Smith.

She’s a smooth and fluid-playing organist who loves Dr. Lonnie Smith and took lessons from him, because she liked his playing with George Benson and Lou Donaldson. She plays barefoot on the pedals and explained why: “Wearing shoes and playing organ is like playing piano with gloves.” And she loves recording live.

In a club engagement at The DeliFrance Montreal Bistro on Sherbrooke Avenue, Vanessa showcased her organ virtuosity playing Lee Morgan’s “These Are Soulful Days,” Wes Montgomery’s “Full House” and Herbie Hancock's “And What If I Don’t.” In between sets, she was gracious enough to discuss just who was Vanessa Rodrigues.

Ed Hamilton: How did you acquire an interest in playing organ and where are you from?

Vanessa Rodrigues: Well, I guess it goes back to when I was a very small child. I loved the pipe organ. I really didn't have the opportunity to play it. I grew up in Edmonton and there really weren’t a lot of pipe organs around—oil and hockey. I loved the big fat sustained sound and you know I got into jazz piano -I played piano since I was small and then I heard a Tower of Power record Back to Oakland -the organ solo. I was inspired first listening to Tower Of Power's "Back to Oakland” and Soulive. When I heard that solo organ on “Squibcakes,” I said Oh My God—I want to do that [play the organ]. So a friend of mind had a Hammond B3 in his basement and it took me about a half hour to figure it out after he showed me how to flip the switches and turn it on and figure out how everything was connected and what controlled what. And finally, when I got a sound out of it, there was no turning back.

How old were you?

I was 19. I wasn’t super young.

Your inspiration came from Tower of Power and who were your favorite organ players?

Lots. It’s hard to decide. I was very influenced by listening to a lot of the older guys—Jimmy Smith, Chester Thompson, Billy Preston, and I really got into Medeski; and I also really got into Soulive a few years ago when they first came out—like their funkier side of things. Then, I went and studied with Dr. Lonnie Smith, who for me, is the Ultimate. He is like who I want to be when I hear organ in my head. That’s what I hear, Dr. Lonnie. I hear myself wanting to sound like him. Know what I mean? I identify with that sound.

His stuff with Lou Donaldson and George Benson?

Of course.

I interviewed George up here [Montreal] two years ago and he said, “Me and Dr. Lonnie could play up some blues w/Lou Donaldson.”

Those are my favorite sessions: 1966 The George Benson Cookbook and Uptown.

What made you decide to stay with the organ and not go back to the piano?

I always kinda had a love/hate relationship with the piano. I love playing piano in Salsa Bands. They’re grove oriented very, rhythmic music and that’s where I am most comfortable playing piano in Salsa bands. Like I said, my love for the organ goes back to when I was a young kid and occasionally when I heard the pipe organ. And I love the big fat sound. Maybe I have a complex because I am a little girl; I need to make a big fat sound.

So how did you get into music professionally?

That’s a tough question. I think a lot of musicians will tell you they didn't really choose music—music chose them.

You were chosen.

I guess so. Music chose me. I really didn’t have much say in the matter. I felt that’s what was calling me. I loved the organ from the very first time I touched it and got a sound out of it; and I felt that’s what I really wanted to do. I saw Lonnie play in New Orleans at the IAJE conference right after I saw my friend’s B3 in his basement. I sat in the front row watching Lonnie and said that’s what I want to do with my life. So that’s it.

How did you hook up with Dave Turner, the baritone sax player with whom you play great organ on his CD Earthtones?

Dave Turner. Well, he is a Montreal jazz institution and he’s mostly known for alto and he decided to switch to bari and got into the organ thing. Kevin Dean, another organist in Montreal (who was known as a trumpet player), and I got into organ at the same time. He’s great and he and Dave go back a long time. So I used to go see their shows and we all started hanging out together. Dave said, “I’m exploring bari and of course we love all those old organ Benson group recordings of the ‘60’s.” We liked the bari and organ sound; I even did a thing with bari-player Ronnie Cuber. I just love that organ sound with bari. Dave was talking about the same thing, saying, “I’d really love to have an organ group” and asked me to be in it.

Had he heard you play?

I guess so. The details are kinda blurry. I guess so. I really can’t remember—it was a few years ago.

What are your future aspirations? Maybe record for Blue Note?

Live recordings, that’s for sure. I released a live recording at the Rex in Toronto with some of my favorite musicians: Chris Galeon on sax, Dominic Lorenzo on drums and Mike Rudd on guitar. They are some of the best players in Canada and even beyond. Amazing. They really have great energy. I love the live feel. A lot of my favorite recordings are live recordings, like Brother Jack McDuff Live with George Benson.

Live at the Jazz Workshop-San Francisco.

Live sessions are my favorite recordings. I find I am much more comfortable in a live setting. I just want to be playing live a lot. I’ve been hosting organ jams with a lot of live sessions. This [tonight’s gig] is the 6th year for me. It’s all about playing live in a comfortable intimate setting—just like we’re in right now.

Thanks for letting us have this inner view of Vanessa Rodrigues. We look forward to good things and good vibes for you in the very near future.

With dreams that emanated from the big fat pipe organ sounds to Jimmy Smith’s Hammond B3, it’s quite clear the future is now for Vanessa Rodrigues. And hopefully, Bruce Lundvall’s ear will hear the new Barefoot Contessa of the B3 and bring her into the family of Blue Note Records.

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Ed Hamilton