9:23 AM CST, November 9, 2012
Even when he's bone tired, after traveling halfway around the world, Joey DeFrancesco lights fires at the keyboards.
"Last night I played in Switzerland – tonight I'm in Chicago," the organ virtuoso told the crowd Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase. "That's not real."
If DeFrancesco was jet-lagged, his fingers didn't know it. Sure, his trio sounded a bit rough at first, and it took DeFrancesco and his colleagues awhile to figure out the acoustics of the room and find the right sonic balance among them (or something close to it).
Yet from his opening selection, "Wonderful Wonderful" – the title track of his latest recording – DeFrancesco showed many of the musical signatures that have made him the jazz world's pre-eminent Hammond B-3 player today. Lightning-quick runs, copious melodic invention, an impeccable ear for color: It was all there, just as it always is.
Everyone identifies "Wonderful Wonderful" with Johnny Mathis, who had a major hit with the tune in the 1950s, but outside of DeFrancesco's opening phrases, Mathis might not have recognized the piece. In effect, the organist took the upbeat spirit of the song and punched it up still more, producing practically an avalanche of sound. If DeFrancesco got paid by the note, he wouldn't need to tour anymore.
Guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Jeremy Thomas responded in kind, and a bit of a musical frenzy ensued. Maybe after being trapped in a plane for so many hours, they just had to burn off some energy. The result was a bit chaotic, until DeFrancesco and friends figured out that that much sound unleashed all at once wasn't the right idea for a room as small as the Showcase.
By the time DeFrancesco dug into an original tune, "V & G," the trio gained fuller control of the situation. The organist crafted luscious chords in his right hand and buoyant rhythms in his left, the elegance of his phrases matched by the expressiveness of his voicings.
Perhaps every great soloist seeks new challenges, which may explain why DeFrancesco chose to play trumpet in the classic "I Thought About You." Considering the stature of DeFrancesco's organ work, however, the horn solo was an unfortunate choice. In effect, DeFrancesco reminded listeners how difficult it is to master one instrument, let alone two. Using Harmon mute, DeFrancesco offered a quietly reflective version of the song, but none of the tonal nuance, improvisational creativity or individualistic voice that one expects of a jazz soloist. This was a novelty at best.
DeFrancesco returned to the organ – and to form – in a transformation of "St. Louis Blues," which became something of a romp. DeFrancesco and Bollenback traded phrases exuberantly throughout, while drummer Thomas never let the rhythmic intensity flag. And in "Wagon Wheel," also from the "Wonderful Wonderful" album, the trio conjured the spirit of the Old West – complete with Ferde Grofe-like rhythms – before DeFrancesco let loose with cascades of whirring lines.
If this is what he sounds like when he's exhausted, just think of what will happen once he gets some rest.
Joey DeFrancesco Trio
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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