It was disappointing, to say the least, when the great Dr. Lonnie Smith performed during the 1990s for the inebriated, the tone deaf and the clueless singles out on a date at O’Hara’s on Los Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. The people at the bar or at the dining tables would see Smith emerge in his elaborate Sikh regalia, ever The Turbanator with an orange, purple or white turban, large rings clicking on his fingers and a carved cane supporting his walk for risible effect. Then the customers would go return to flirting. Once Smith sat down at his slab keyboard, he was all business, though, as he performed with local talents like Turk Mauro, Eric Allison, Danny Burger or Juanita Dixon.
Even with a substandard instrument and a less-than-ideal venue for a musician of his considerable talent, The Turbanator delivered an over-the-top, uncompromising and energizing performance every night. His New Year’s Eve gig for a friend in Fort Lauderdale evolved into a seven-night-a-week gig at O’Hara’s and virtual invisibility from the rest of the jazz recording community. Credit Todd Barkan for recording Smith again with Afro Blue in 1997. And now we can thank Matt Balitsaris of Palmetto Records for releasing Dr. Lonnie Smith albums again on a regular basis as he resumes his prominence as the premier and one of the few remaining B-3 jazz organists from the heyday of the instrument. The generosity of a music store owner on Genesee Street in Buffalo, Art Kuber, led from the in-store practice of a novice in love with the B-3 organ to an up-and-down music career of more than 40 years after Smith and George Benson drove to New York in Benson’s Cadillac in search of Grant Green and their soon-thereafter Columbia recording contract.
Smith’s work with Palmetto has been remarkably consistent and eagerly awaited as he performs the music his own way, no matter who wrote the original tune. Rise Up! is no exception. Smith’s most recent CD reaffirms that he is not only one of the organ masters who helped shape the sound of the instrument, but also he has harnessed the B-3’s power to set up his always recognizable groove. Smith certainly has the support of exceptional musicians on Rise Up!, but no one can deny that his personality is the one that establishes the feel of the recording. Indeed, the inspiring effect of his playing brings out the best of Peter Bernstein, Donald Harrison and Herlin Riley for combined, irresistible soulfulness.
Smith takes over the covers as if they were written for groove. Such as The Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams." He introduced the song with music-box softness before leading into freely fluttering lift-off before the stomping, quarter-note beat comes in to anchor the song. Without checking the track listing first, someone could assume that the performance sounds like "Sweet Dreams," as if Smith had chosen to create a vamp based on its changes. But no, he converts the song into a bluesy platform for extended soloing, Harrison sounding especially groove-striken throughout his improvisation. And then Smith takes the interpretation up another notch with his expected wildness of attack, though ever controlled.
"Come Together" includes a hilarious guttural singing of the words, barely discernible as Smith’s organ surges, accented by Harrison’s brief descending line every four bars and the gravelly texture of his voice belies the fact that he started as a singer. Smith is entertaining, setting up the feel and not trying to be taken seriously as a singer any longer. "People Make the World Go Round," though initially straightforward, builds into an almost eleven-minute groove, punctuated as always by Smith’s pedal work, response to Harrison’s call and his startling, rise-up!, screaming accents.
Some of the pieces appear to be chosen for featuring the sideman. Like Larry Young’s "Tyrone," which allows Riley to employ his second-nature second-line beat after Smith converted Young’s original three-four meter to four. "And the World Weeps" starts with a New Orleans funeral march beat, which provides the mood for Smith’s fairly uncomplicated melody. But as always, the groove is the most important part of Smith’s playing, more than the melody, and he builds an understated solo from long lugubrious tones to dynamically swelling tremolos and sustained notes.
Harrison’s background in New Orleans voodoo tradition seems to be the reason for, or at least coincident to, Smith’s low-register pedal vamp and subliminal drone on "Voodoo Doll," which Harrison expresses with blue notes and wails and complete understanding of the nature of the song. As for Bernstein, who has accompanied numerous other B-3 organists, "Dapper Dan" supplies the opportunity not only to set up a "Winelight"-like popping pattern, but also for an extended finely structured solo, underlain by Smith’s unmistakable B-3 chords. He improvises yet another soulful solo on "People Make the World Go Round" over the single chord after the stated melody is taken care of at the beginning, and before Smith’s explosive crescendo at the end of the chorus.
Touring and playing in appropriate clubs now like The Jazz Standard and Sculler’s, Dr. Lonnie Smith is back finally and recognized once again as a leading force on the Hammond B-3 organ, as he always should have been continuously since the 60s.