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Joey DeFrancesco: Philadelphia Flyer

Joey DeFrancesco
Joey DeFrancesco
Papa John DeFrancesco

We’re in the dim light of the historic Napoleon House in the heart of the French Quarter, and B3 organist Joey DeFrancesco, oozing his Italian neighborhood upbringing in Philadelphia, has New Orleans on the brain. It’s the day after his trio performed the first of a two-night stand at Snug Harbor. Following the show, the three musicians stayed up late strolling along bustling Frenchmen Street and the nearby Quarter where, it was remarked, there was music everywhere.

As waiters in their black and whites scurry back and forth to the kitchen, and we chomp on a shared muffuletta, a large Italian sandwich that is the café’s specialty, it isn’t long before DeFrancesco mentions one of his earliest influences, New Orleans piano man Fats Domino.

“I was watching cartoons and this commercial came on,” remembers DeFrancesco, who then begins singing the lyrics, “‘I’m walkin’ to New Orleans.’ It was one of those 1-800 greatest hits infomercials or whatever, and there was ‘Blueberry Hill’ and all these tunes. It knocked me out and I was, like, three. So I dialed the number and ordered it. So this thing comes to the house C.O.D. and dad says, ‘What is this?’ And he opened it up and said, ‘Fats Domino?’ And I went, like, ‘Yeah, daddy, I ordered it.’ He was happy though.”

Naturally, his father, organist “Papa” John DeFrancesco, a professional musician like his father before him, appreciated and encouraged his son’s interest in music. Some of the first music to reach the toddler’s ears in the family’s row house was recordings by the likes of Philadelphia organists Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, and they made a lifelong impression. While the youngster knew his father played organ, he wasn’t really familiar with the instrument until his dad took a break from gigging and it arrived back in the house.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is the instrument I hear all this great stuff from,'” remembers DeFrancesco of the sound that so attracted him at age four. “So my father showed me how to turn it on. Every day when he was at work, I would be sitting home with that organ. Little by little I was playing it, and eventually I learned Jimmy Smith’s ‘The Sermon’ note for note. And I waited until I really knew it and I waited until my dad walked in the door, and I started playing it, and he was shocked.”

With DeFrancesco, childhood experiences go beyond cute stories and early musical indications. Playing gigs with his father’s band from age six until 10 and heading a group while still in his preteen years offered him the opportunity to perform with luminaries such as drummers Philly Jo Jones and John Williams plus saxophonist Hank Mobley. The youngster became seeped in the classic organ style and repertoire that remains entrenched in his music.

“It’s how I hear. I grew up listening to all those songs. I know it just had to make me be older,” says the organist of playing and hanging around veteran musicians. He sees a parallel between his and pianist Harry Connick Jr.’s approach to the music and their oft-similar repertoire as resulting from their both being on bandstands with older cats.

Though DeFrancesco plays with an old soul, at age 32 he also brings a buoyant new spirit to the sound and style of that previous era. At the Snug Harbor date, his trio with longtime drummer Byron Landham and guitarist Craig Ebner opened with an unstandard version of the classic “Fly Me to the Moon.” Playing what was noted as a “kazillion notes,” the highly emotional organist reworked the song to such a degree that the melody seemed merely an added quote. The next night, apparently feeling four limbs weren’t enough to obtain the sound he wanted, DeFrancesco produced a huge chord by laying his considerable head on the keys.

A romantic to the core, the organist stays closer to home when dealing with ballads, as heard on tunes like “They Say It’s Wonderful” from his aptly titled 2001 album Singin’ and Swingin’ (Concord), on which DeFrancesco does both. “I’ve been singing since I was a kid because so many people I liked sang, like Fats Domino. Of course I love Frank Sinatra, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Johnny Hartman. So I just wanted to take a shot.”

On his latest Concord album, Falling in Love Again, DeFrancesco is content to swing behind the keys and let featured artist Joe Doggs take over the microphone. The organist’s usual smaller combo expands for this outing with added horns including saxophonists Red Holloway and Ralph Moore, guitarists Pat Martino, Kevin Eubanks and Ron Escheté, trumpeter Elijah Davis, congoist Ramon Banda and drummers Landham and Jeff Hamilton. Doggs, who owes much to the style of Jimmy Scott, takes center stage on a disc full of standards.

“He lived with Scott when he was a kid,” says DeFrancesco of the obvious comparison between the two vocalists. When confronted with the fact that Joe Doggs is actually actor Joe Pesci, the organist simply states, “Joe and Joe Doggs are dear friends. They know each other, but Joe Pesci can’t sing, and Joe Doggs can. I met him in Philly years ago when he was singing because that’s what he did. [Performing with Doggs] isn’t like backing up a singer; the band really cooks.”

DeFrancesco’s trio takes on the role of special guest, and he even plays some trumpet on another swingin’ and often-funky new release, the Tony Monaco Trio’s A New Generation: Paesanos on the New B3 (Summit). The title tells part of the story in that the Italian organists and Hammond endorsers faced off in the studio manning the company’s New B3. It is a celebration of sorts, marking the return to production after a nearly 30-year hiatus of the much-heralded instrument.

“That new organ is better than the old one could think of being,” vows DeFrancesco, “and that’s amazing to me.” He explains by saying, “They made the B3 from 1955 through 1975-20 years-and all through those years, they all sounded different. Some of them sound horrible; some of them sound good and some of them sound ridiculously alive. So they analyzed the ridiculously alive sounding ones, and every one of these [New B3s] sound like that-they’re all consistent. You’d have to go through about 20 of the old ones to get one that sounds like this new one.”

In his 26-year career, the organist has had an opportunity to check out a plethora of models. At the Snug Harbor show, DeFrancesco sat behind a 1958 B3, and he has six of the nearly 400-pound instruments in his Arizona home. “Its fast attack was always the key,” says DeFrancesco, whose propensity for playing a “kazillion” notes certainly demands the clarity of a precision instrument.

While DeFrancesco admits he doesn’t always spare notes, he credits Miles Davis, with whom he toured and recorded as a 17-year-old, with illustrating the importance of space. “I play a lot of stuff now, but because I was young I was really playing a lot then,” says DeFrancesco, who was spotted by Davis when the trumpeter appeared on a Philadelphia television talk show called Time Out. DeFrancesco was on the set with a trio of high school students that included bassist Christian McBride, a fellow Creative and Performing Arts classmate. Following a brief solo by DeFrancesco on a synthesizer, Davis abruptly turned to the host and asked, “What’s your organ player’s name?”

“It totally threw the guy off,” remembers DeFrancesco, noting that Davis immediately recognized him as an organ player rather than a keyboardist. “I mean he knew, he could tell.” Later, he recalls, Davis affectionately punched him in the chest and said, “You can play, motherfucker,” and then took his phone number. Soon thereafter, the trumpeter phoned, but DeFrancesco wasn’t at home. On his arrival his grandmother told him that some guy called, “Miles something.”

“I went in there and [a notepad] said ‘Miles Davis.’ I thought it was Chris McBride [joking with me]. I called the number, and he answers the phone-‘What?’-and I hung up the phone,” recalls DeFrancesco laughing. “I called right back: ‘What? Did you hang up?'” he rasps.

Davis invited the 17-year-old to his apartment in New York’s Essex House and had him play a Fender Rhodes. DeFrancesco choose “Stella by Starlight” and will never forget the moment when the trumpeter stepped in to join him.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I like that even though we don’t play that shit anymore, I still love it.’ I couldn’t believe this was happening,” remembers DeFrancesco, who, though he was still in high school, left to tour with Davis for several U.S. dates followed by six weeks of appearances in Europe. He is heard on Davis’ recordings Amandla and Live Around the World.

To this day, DeFrancesco rues having to leave Davis’ band. However, the young man’s debut album for Columbia, the influential All of Me, was about to be released, and the label’s George Butler, who first heard DeFrancesco at the 1987 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, had big promotional plans for his new artist. Breaking away from Davis was tough and an experience lost, even considering that DeFrancesco’s debut CD not only ignited his career, which has produced 17 albums and counting, but it also sparked the comeback of jazz organ.

“It was a great opportunity for [Columbia]-with this young guy-to bring that era back,” rationalizes DeFrancesco. “At the time I didn’t know that.” That the era was to find new life beneath the hands and feet of a musician from Philadelphia, where the jazz organ sound blossomed under the huge influence of native Jimmy Smith, further reinforced the aura. (DeFrancesco pays tribute to his hero on the two volumes of The Champ he recorded for High Note, and Smith joins DeFrancesco for half the tracks on 2000’s Incredible! on Concord.)

Although by the time DeFrancesco arrived on the scene the organ had given way to the synthesizer, Philadelphia’s association with the jazz organ lingered and, to a large extent, is at the heart of what is considered the Philly sound. (One that DeFrancesco acknowledges explicitly on The Philadelphia Connection: A Tribute to Don Patterson, his 2002 album for High Note.)

“Swinging blues” is how DeFrancesco describes the city’s defining style. “It’s a certain way it grooves, like in New Orleans you have that second-line rhythm. Byron [Landham] is definitely a Philly drummer.”

“It’s rounder and has a more legato feel,” elaborates Landham on the essence of the sound while comparing it with New York’s top-of-the-beat, staccato approach. Landham, who has joined DeFrancesco in that groove since 1989, cites native Philadelphia drummer Philly Jo Jones as one of its supremely influential purveyors.

On the bandstand, the organist and drummer’s mutual enjoyment of sitting in the groove pocket is obvious. Lots and lots of smiles and looks of surprise and admiration are shared throughout an evening of playing.

“We’ve grown together,” says Landham, “and Joey and I are so tight we have serious trust in one another. The best thing about playing with him is that he allows me to be myself. We play our personalities.”

The swinging Philly sound, which DeFrancesco embellishes with his own ferocity and improvisation, plus passionate romantic ballads, dominate the organist’s music. However, as he did on 2002’s Ballads and Blues and again at the Snug Harbor date, the Philadelphia native continues to acknowledge New Orleans’ influence by performing Spencer William’s “Basin Street Blues.” On his own composition “Did You Hear Him Holler?” from Singin’ and Swingin’, DeFrancesco references those strains of Fats Domino that he first heard as a child and loves to this day.

With the aroma of olive salad, which crowns our muffuletta, permeating the air, and talk of jazz and Italians as our entrée, I was reminded of the time I asked the late banjoist-guitarist-historian-author Danny Barker what the French Quarter was like when he was a kid. The quick-witted Barker replied, “It smelled like meatballs and spaghetti.”

The warm spirit of Philadelphia’s Joey DeFrancesco seemed right at home in the birthplace of jazz and his beloved Fats Domino.

Originally Published