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Dr. Lonnie Smith: Boogaloo to Beck

Is a Beck song still a Beck song when no one’s singing the words? The pop artist’s tunes rely on his free-association flow of nonsequiturs, whether they’re songs of lovelorn lament or hip-hopping storms of cheeky samples and other assorted sonic whatnot. It’d take a band with stones-a-plenty to drop the microphone on wordy Beck anthems like “The New Pollution” and “Loser” and not wear you out on the monotony of the verse-chorus routine.

Dr. Lonnie Smith gives it a go on Boogaloo to Beck with a small combo gathered ’round the B3. Soul-jazz is the M.O., and guitarist-arranger-producer Doug Munro (in hiding as the real leader on the date, I suspect) tries to buck the no-singing dilemma by using Beck’s melodies as launch points for long solos. It’s sort of like Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Beck-and it could have worked-but please: more soul. Most of these tunes groove like mad in their original incarnations. They’ve all but begged to be recast in the organ-jazz mold and deserve better than the sterility of these performances.

Saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman’s presence (on five long tracks) edges the sound nearer to Spyro Gyra than ’60s Blue Note. His peppy pecking on “Jack Ass” turns Beck’s gorgeous dust-my-blues ballad upside down; the introspective dream in sound becomes smooth-jazz puff. Without Newman the sound comes a wee bit closer to what we expect from Smith: less construction and more feeling. But it would have helped greatly if drummer Lafrae Sci had wrested her beats from the box and lighted a hotter fire under the band. Things get static over time.

We do get a down-and-dirty cut in “Paper Tiger,” the Newman-less opener. The slow jam stretches nearly 10 minutes and Smith is in full organ-deity splendor. Try not to squint your eyes in the face of his funk. I couldn’t. It should have been the blueprint track for an album ultimately weighed down by the mighty cheese factor.

Originally Published