Dr. Lonnie Smith Meets the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw at Birdland

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Dr. Lonnie Smith and the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw recently wrapped up a run of late-May shows at New York’s Birdland.

(Photo: Adrien H. Tillmann)

In its stateside debut, the Jazz Orchestra of the Concertgebouw joined forces with Hammond B-3 organ wizard Dr. Lonnie Smith in a week-long engagement at Birdland.

The rare meeting, which ran May 21–25, of the NEA Jazz Master and a premier Dutch big band was a rekindling of their chemistry from 2016’s I Didn’t Know What Time It Was and a subsequent club tour that year, a perfect blending of seemingly disparate elements: intuitive, in-the-moment exploration by the mercurial organ master, paired with intricate and inventive arrangements by the well-polished big band.

“For me, the contrast between the discipline of the orchestra and the space in between the section parts is very appealing,” said Dennis Mackrel—the Dutch troupe’s chief conductor and former drummer with the Count Basie Orchestra—while discussing his work with Smith. “The band does what it does, and if I see that he’s going someplace, I just give him space, let him do what he’s going to do.

“Doc’s world adds a lot to the musical dynamics,” he continued. “He’s one of the few organists who truly knows when to play and when not to play. He’s like a painter who knows precisely what color or combination of colors to use and when to use them. And he’s as much of a supportive team player as he is a world famous soloist. He’s just as strong and as comfortable comping behind our soloists as he is unleashing all of the power that he knows his instrument can unleash.”

The engagement’s opening night offered plenty of sparks in a program ranging from Smith’s signature funk to lush renditions of ballads, with the world-class 18-piece ensemble adding rich horn voicings and reimagined parts from the pen of accomplished arrangers Rob Horsting, Henk Meutgeert and Mackrel.

The big band kicked off the first set in irrepressibly swinging fashion with “Swarms,” a driving number from its 2019 album Crossroads that showcased guitarist-composer Martijn Van Iterson’s fluid chops and warm, inviting tone on his Gibson ES-125. Tenorman Simon Rigter’s swaggering “Olivia’s Dance” recalled vintage Les McCann-Eddie Harris, with Rigter even quoting from Harris’ classic “Compared To What” solo. New York trombonist John Fedchock—subbing for the band’s regular trombonist Ilja Reijngoud, who couldn’t make the gig due to visa problems—soloed beautifully on Ilja Reijngoud’s lovely waltz-time ballad, “English Heart.” And guitarist Iterson flaunted Pat Martino-esque chops on his uptempo burner, “Shortcut.”

Smith, sporting a black turban and red scarf on this opening night, jumped on “Cookin’ For Jimmy,” a gospel-tinged romp reminiscent of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” that was right in his wheelhouse. With spirited stabs in the high register and some unabashed testifying on the keys, Smith brought this number to church with Juan Martinez (baritone saxophonist and the band’s artistic director) adding some robust punctuations. Horsting’s arrangement of Smith’s minor blues, “Too Damn Hot,” brought a kind of silken, Nelson Riddle-ish luster to the title track of the organist’s 2004 album. Bassist Frans van Geest also contributed an emphatic solo that was fatter and warmer than Smith’s usual left-hand bass lines. They closed the first set on a decidedly funky note, with Smith’s “Play It Back,” arranged by Mackrel to maximize the dynamics of the big band, taking it from gospel holler to whisper. This sly, bluesy, mid-tempo Basie-styled swinger, which dates back to the organist’s 1970 Live At Club Mozambique, had the audience clapping along in time with the infectious groove.

The second set saw The Doctor unleash during his stop-time soul-jazz anthem “The Whip,” then settle into a gorgeous rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge,” featuring an outstanding trumpet solo from Dave Vreuls. They took it out in high-flying fashion with Meutgeert’s kinetic arrangement of Richard Rodgers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” that had Smith wailing over the top and New Yorker David Glasser providing a Cannonball-inspired alto solo.

“Working with Dr. Lonnie is always a big adventure,” Mackrel said after the first night’s second set. “He’s a pretty enigmatic, shaman-like figure, but our collaborations always have been musically very strong and fruitful. The big-band arrangements try to reinforce the organ and underline some structural parts of the music, but the main thing is not getting in the way of the flow of the music. We try to create a musical context that inspires Doc and our players to be in the moment and interact as much as possible. And I can tell you that everyone in the orchestra always feels and sounds better after working with Dr. Lonnie, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. After all, you’re supposed to feel better after seeing your doctor.” DB



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October 2019
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