Just because you have muscle doesn’t mean you have to show it off, Dr. Lonnie Smith writes on his website.
That restraint may be the key to Smith’s longevity and current star status: not the sheer power of his Hammond B-3 organ, one of the world’s mightiest instruments, but the dynamic contrasts of his touch on the 425-pound monster.
You don’t have to kill a person all the time, he said from the stage. Just take it easy and you’ll end up groovin’ em to death.
And Smith’s dramatic leaps from whisper to shout, couched in the deep, soul jazz grooves of the classic organ trio, delighted the SRO crowd for Saturday’s first show at Jimmy Mak’s, where Smith was accompanied by iconic Portland drummer Mel Brown and former resident Dan Faehnle, a guitarist who has toured extensively with Diana Krall.
The supportive rapport that Smith quickly developed with his bandmates turned what might have been a routine appearance into something like a joyful reunion of peers, though the three had met only 15 minutes before the downbeat.
These guys are bad, said Smith, who has played with a number of accompanists on his current West Coast tour. The reason I say that not to put anyone down but sometimes it’s just too much. And while Faehnle spun smooth, fluid lines in the style of soul jazz pioneers Grant Green and George Benson, and Brown laid down an impeccable groove, the organist looked at them, smiled and nodded, saying Yeaaaah, yeaaaah.
But from the moment he entered the room, in trademark blue turban and Indian tunic, his white beard bobbing as he bowed and shook eager hands, the spotlight belonged to Smith. The experience of his four-decade career was evident in easy audience interaction as well as the calculated pace of his 80-minute set. With more than 70 albums as a leader, and a revered figure now that the jazz organ has found its way into rap and jam band music, Smith enjoys an international reputation even bigger than when his Alligator Boogaloo became a jukebox hit in the late 1960s.
Often, music’s emotional impact is achieved through tension and release, and Smith is its master. At one point, he had the room straining to hear before unleashing thick, theatrical chords with melodramatic vibrato that he punctuated with bluesy runs, and catharsis was achieved.
Smith relies on the repeating figures and sustained chords that reflect the gospel roots of soul jazz. Using repetition that increased intensity, his laid-back but insistent sound reached a climax in the funky closing tune, Your Momma’s Got a Complex, when Smith locked the keyboard into a sustained chord while he stood to dance in delight.