Joey DeFrancesco Expands His Skill Set

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Joey DeFrancesco, widely celebrated as an organist, also sings and plays trumpet and tenor saxophone.

(Photo: Michael Woodall)

With touring on hold due to the pandemic, multi-instrumentalist and jazz organ icon Joey DeFrancesco has been staying put in his Arizona home.

For him, this break from the road has been a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence: During his 33 years as a professional musician, DeFrancesco rarely has spent an extended period of time at home, instead living his life on the stage and in the recording studio. He’s been anything but idle during the hiatus, however. “I’m well known for my organ playing, but I play other instruments, too,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s nice to dig into them a little more.”

Saying that DeFrancesco is known for his organ playing is like saying that Porsche is known for its cars. DeFrancesco—who has topped the Organ category five times during the past six editions of the DownBeat Critics Poll—started his career as a musically precocious teenager. By age 20, he had toured with Miles Davis, recorded three albums for Columbia Records and placed fourth in the 1987 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition.

From these propitious beginnings he would go on to collaborate as a peer with celebrated artists across the musical spectrum—including organist Jimmy Smith, his mentor—and earn five Grammy nominations as a leader or co-leader.

But DeFrancesco doesn’t just play the organ. He has earned his bona fides as a vocalist, and when he’s seated on the organ bench, his trumpet often is within arm’s reach. Furthermore, he doesn’t just play the Hammond B-3 organ. He plays several other keyboards, including signature JdF models from the Legend line of electric organs manufactured by Viscount.

Of late, too, DeFrancesco has taken up the tenor saxophone, an interest that arose while working on his 2019 release, In The Key Of The Universe (Mack Avenue). Spending time absorbing the incandescent reed lines of the album’s guest artist, Pharoah Sanders, proved to be an inspiration. “I thought [the saxophone] was going to be something to have fun with, that I wouldn’t take too seriously,” he recalled. “But then I got really serious about it. And now I feel as strongly about it as any of the other instruments.”

For DeFrancesco, wind instruments aren’t that far removed from the organ. As a keyboardist, he tends to focus on lissome, single-line runs, the way many horn players do. And as an improviser, he ventures across a capacious harmonic expanse, something he learned from listening to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. What changes from one instrument to the next are the tonal elements with which he can experiment. “The ideas come from a certain place, but you can do different things with each instrument,” he said.

Percussionist Sammy Figueroa, who first recorded with DeFrancesco almost 30 years ago, joined him in the studio for In The Key Of The Universe. Figueroa noted that during those sessions, the leader’s ability to synthesize musical elements from different eras and contexts exemplified “the sheer, natural beauty of a true artist.”

On the title track, DeFrancesco’s playing evokes the thrill of Smith’s dark, bluesy left-handed bass lines, grounding them in drummer Billy Hart’s pressing shuffle and offsetting the sprawling contours of Sanders’ improvisations. But on tunes like “A Path Through The Noise” and “Inner Being,” DeFrancesco uses Figueroa’s euphonic accentuation and saxophonist Troy Roberts’ languid musings to stretch into more contemporary feels and fresh harmonic structures.

“Joey takes all styles and creates his own—the Joey DeFrancesco style,” Figueroa observed. “When you have that artistry within your physiology, within your spirit, you’re unstoppable. He is probably the greatest organ player alive.”

Until touring resumes, DeFrancesco will be at home, practicing his instruments and teaching his self-designed jazz courses to students online.

He’s looking forward to two releases coming out this fall: For Jimmy, Wes And Oliver (Mack Avenue), a Christian McBride Big Band tribute with DeFrancesco on organ; and a new trio album, featuring a second keyboard player, who will play organ, freeing up the bandleader to switch to tenor saxophone at will.

“I’m just being true to myself, always trying to go to the next level,” DeFrancesco said. “It’s something that you never stop working on.” DB

This story originally was published in the August 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.