Forty five years after leaving Blue Note, the greatest living proponent of the Hammond B3 organ, Dr Lonnie Smith, is back on the label and in London to promote his new album, Evolution, at Ronnie Scott’s.
During his first show on Tuesday the Doctor expresses surprise and delight at returning to the label but it’s a move he’s earned on merit rather than sentiment, continuing to work and record throughout the intervening years, but it feels he’s now back home where he cut those classic late 60s soul-jazz albums Move Your Hand, Turning Point and Think plus the fabulous LPs with Lou Donaldson. “Lou’s doing great, I spoke to him the other day,” Lonnie tells me, “he’s family”. The esteem Smith holds the label is demonstrated when he explains the large ring he is wearing he had made using a piece of gravel taken from outside Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs. “I haven’t told Rudy,” he remembers, seeming to wonder why.
Another thing Smith has forgotten is the name of his current album, twice checking with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, and from which record ‘Pilgrimage’ was taken (The Healer). When the audience start chuckling Smith, with an ever-present twinkle in his eye, says “Don’t laugh, I’ve made 50-60 albums.” It’s a fair point.
Much of the material though is taken from his previous two albums; opening with the atmospheric, New York-in-the-drizzle, cinematic ‘Backtrack’. From there on his trio –the virtuoso Kreisberg is joined with the man with the neatest drum set-up in the business, Johnathan Blake, whose playing is as a funky as his all-on-one-level set-up is tidy – cook up a shimmering potion which, when they bring to the boil at intervals, turns Scott’s club into a furnace of groove.
There’s so much depth in Smith’s repertoire that the practice of tagging it by genre is frankly ludicrous: jazz, soul, blues, gospel, spiritual, classical, funk, rock, standards, whatever. Smith weaves through them all and more. One moment the Doc is pumping away like in a Blaxploitation movie soundtrack, the next scarcely making a sound as an ethereal beauty delicately takes over. Original composition ‘For Heaven’s Sake’ makes its first ever live performance “We’re stepping on to thin ice here. If you don’t like it, listen to the version on the new CD” he jokes, whilst adaptations of ‘My Favourite Things’ and ‘Straight No Chaser’ are more easily recognisable albeit done in a Hammond heavy style.
The good Doctor is mischievous rascal and has one last trick up his robes as he exits the stage gingerly with the exaggerated aid of a walking cane. Once at the nearest table he picks up the cane and begins to slap a rhythm on what is in fact his electrified “Slaperoo” which puzzles one man who appears to ask what it is. “It’s magic,” replies Smith, who continues to merrily circle the club. Watching a man in his 70s play a funky synth-sound on a souped-up silver walking stick/didgeridoo, held like a guitar, before launching his trio into a blistering finale with 'Play It Back' isn’t something one sees every evening. It is, like Dr. Lonnie Smith himself, most definitely magic.
Evolution by Dr. Lonnie Smith is out now on Blue Note Records.