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Q&A with Joey DeFrancesco

Jazz legend talks about new album, playing “In the Key of the Universe”

  • 5 min to read
Joey DeFrancesco

Joey DeFrancesco performs with his trio Saturday at the University of Oklahoma. His trio included drummer Byron Landham and saxophonist Troy Roberts.

Jazz legend Joey DeFrancesco is riding the wave of his new release, a 10-track album titled “In the Key of the Universe.”

That wave started with album release shows in New York at the end of last month and will continue when the famed organist heads to Seattle to close this month with a six-show engagement with special guest Pharoah Sanders.

In between those and tour dates with Van Morrison, DeFrancesco came to the University of Oklahoma to help break in a 65-year-old Hammond B-3 donated to the American Organ Institute.

Before he took the stage on back-to-back nights in Norman, he talked with The Transcript about his new album, musical evolution and the spirituality behind them.

• What is it about the Hammond B-3 that makes it such a vibrant and cool instrument? Are there other instruments that really move you on the same level, or is the B-3 the king for more reasons than one?

“When we’re talking organ — this is something I’ve been trying to clear up a little bit in recent years — we all have a tendency, and I had to stop doing it myself, to say B-3 and it’s best to just say organ. B-3 is a model number and that’s not always what we’re playing. There are a lot of instruments … but if we’re talking about a sound, of course that sound originated with the Hammond organ, but it wasn’t specifically a B-3 … I’m slowly trying to make that change, because it’s an organ and the players of today, it’s very rare that you’ll see (a B-3) because there are a lot of instruments that are manufactured now that are quite good, that give you a great sound. Let’s just call it an organ, you know?”

• So most players are probably turning toward things like the Nord Electro these days?

“Well yeah. And myself too. I have a signature model that’s made by a company called Viscount. It’s from Italy and it gets the sound you need to play that style of music. I’ll use a Hammond [at OU] because this is about the history of the organ. There are times when I do use a B-3, but there are other Hammond models, too, that get that sound.”

• You’ve just released a new album, “In the Key of the Universe.” In a recent interview, drummer Billy Hart said it’s the most interesting project you guys have worked on together. What makes this one different for you?

“I think just because of the evolution of where my music has taken me and just through the natural evolution of my life and what’s happened, too, spiritual music being more a part of it. A freer kind of music. And that’s probably what Billy was talking about. We’ve done a lot of things together. It’s rooted in tradition, but it’s a more open concept, musically. I guess the improvisation, and some of the song structures, harmonically and some of the time signatures, are a little different. It’s not everything in 4/4.

And then the choice of having someone like [saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders, who is known for a freer approach to music, although he’s also strongly rooted in tradition … That’s just where my music has evolved to. I guess that’s what [Hart] means by that and us together. And, of course, him and Pharoah had a history. One of the songs we recorded, ‘The Creator has a Master Plan,’ which is very synonymous with Pharoah Sanders, came out in 1969. Billy was also a part of that project back 50 years ago. So, I think those things make it a little more special.”

• Why is Pharoah Sanders’ involvement so significant to the record as a whole and to you?

“As a player, I always admired his playing and his free approach. His free approach always had so much music and feeling in it and I had the chance to meet him years ago; he came to one of my gigs and sat in and it was amazing. That was always in the back of my mind and where my music has evolved naturally, it has gone into a place where he is really one of the first innovators of that kind of style, that free style … It was just the time to do it. It was perfect to have him involved in this, to go to the source.

• You talk about your music as a sort of spiritual jazz. Is there something that you feel tapped into now that perhaps you weren’t when you were younger? Separate from virtuosity, does true mastery only come with time and musical introspection?

“It depends on what we mean by virtuosity, because a lot of times a virtuoso is associated with technical ability, which is something that for me — I have been very fortunate — is natural. I worked on it not knowing I was working on it because I loved to play so much that I just played a lot. I was interested in listening to things I was hearing from teachers through their recordings. When you’re listening, that’s how you learn.

“Most of these cats have technical ability. So, you start with that. That’s something I was interested in, but it was also the natural feeling of the music. It’s not just being able to play it technically; it’s how it feels when you play it, so it doesn’t just sound like a bunch of notes. Anybody can practice hard and play that way, but to be individual, to have a style at the same time, that happens with maturing and time. It takes time to sound like yourself, to develop a sound. That’s what’s happening.”

“Regardless of the genre, too … There are a lot of classical players, but there are some that you know by the way they approach the music, the way they interpret it. Now, they’re not improvising, but they still have to interpret the music their way and the way it feels. Then you learn more things and where your life is going spiritually is definitely going to be involved in your approach to music.

“In the last few years of maturing and meditating, and taking more time to do that and listen to to nature and your surroundings, that’s the whole idea of “In the Key of the Universe.” It’s about listening to the universe and being in touch with that side of things. It opens up a whole new arena of development in music and life and all of that is one thing.”

• You’ve shared the stage with so many great performers over the years. How did they make you see and hear music differently? Were there any “aha moments” that stick with you?

“Sure. That happens all the time, and I’ve been very fortunate to be around some incredible masters and from a young age.

“I grew up in Philadelphia during a period of time where there were still some of the cats who hadn’t left yet. They were still hanging out here on this planet and they sounded great and I got to play with them.

“Even just going to listen to people like Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. Later on, I had the great fortune of getting to play with Miles Davis and being around him a lot. People like George Coleman and Pharoah Sanders, Billy Hart, James Moody, Bobby Hutcherson, Larry Coryell, George Benson, just to name a few, what they do with the music you can see how natural it is. Nothing is contrived.

“We all have a vocabulary that gets larger and larger … You have to start somewhere and then you learn more and more things. It’s like learning a different language; it’s being bilingual on your instrument, musically, and at the same time having that spiritual aspect come through.

“Technical ability is important; you have to be able to play your instrument and execute all the ideas that come through you. But at the same time, without that feeling, it won’t move people.”

• Your touring schedule is intense. How do you keep it up?

“Well, you just do it. It’s not a choice you make. It’s what I have wanted to do since I was very young. I wanted to play and I’m happy to do it. The travel schedule, that’s maybe not the funnest part, but the show makes it all worth while.”

• What’s the future of jazz?

“I observe what’s happening and I listen to what’s going on, but I can really only speak for myself. For me, it’s just continuing to play music as true as possible.”

Mack Burke

follow me @mackburke4

Mack Burke is an investigative reporter and award-winning feature writer and columnist for The Norman Transcript. An OU alumnus, he has lived in Norman since 2003.