Joey DeFrancesco’s Tenor Madness


Joey DeFrancesco has added the tenor saxophone to the growing list of instruments he performs on.

(Photo: Jim Hesterman)

Joey DeFrancesco remembers the exact moment when he got “bit by the bug.”

The year was 2018, and the organist was at Tempest Studios in Tempe, Arizona, working on what would become his Grammy-nominated album In The Key Of The Universe. Although most of the album was recorded with a trio consisting of drummer Billy Hart, percussionist Sammy Figueroa and saxophonist Troy Roberts, DeFrancesco had invited veteran tenor Sanders to play on three tracks, including “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” which Sanders first recorded on his landmark 1970 album, Karma.

“I was a fan, always a fan, of Pharoah’s,” DeFrancesco said via Zoom from his home in Mississauga, Ontario. “And, I’ve been around great tenor players. I mean, I love George Coleman. I spent a lot of time with him, hearing him play. And I had Troy Roberts in my band for four years. He’s off the charts on saxophone. Ridiculous, you know?

“But when Pharoah pulled his horn out in the studio, he was like this far from me,” he said, holding his hand about 18 inches from his face. “The bell of the horn was right here, and he played a G, and it was just — my hair stood up. That sound. I mean, there was always a special feeling every time I’d hear the saxophone, but that just solidified it. After that session, I was just, I want to start playing the saxophone.”

This wasn’t the first time DeFrancesco had come down with tenor madness. “You know, my grandfather was a saxophone player, and he played with the Dorsey Brothers,” he explained. “Joseph, who I’m named after. So there was always some saxophone history in the family. My father kept his horns, and thank goodness he did, because those were there when I decided I wanted to dabble with the instrument.”

His first fling was in the mid-’90s. “I got a little bit bitten by the bug to want to play tenor,” he said. He went to his dad’s place, and borrowed his grandfather’s tenor. “I pulled it out, and had a natural vibe with it,” he said. “So natural that I got enough courage after practicing for a few days to go to a club in Philly to sit in. And it was a little bit of a lesson. You know what? You’re not ready. You got to go practice,” he laughed. “So it went back in the case for another 25 years.”

This time around, though, DeFrancesco put in some proper woodshedding. “At first, I thought it was going to be a thing that I was going to do and enjoy on my own,” he said. “But I got bit by the bug big time, and I haven’t been able to put it down.” Instead, he changed his game plan.

More Music, his 39th album as a leader, showcases both his versatility and his virtuosity, as he offers masterful performances not only on tenor saxophone, but trumpet, piano, keyboard and (of course) organ. He even shows off his vocal chops on the ballad “And If You Please.”

But while More Music may be a departure in terms of instrumentation, it’s a return to roots in terms of its sound, happily mining the soulful hard-bop that has long been the bedrock of Philadelphia jazz. It helps that his new trio are all Philadelphians, and deeply invested in the local scene.

DeFrancesco first noticed organist Lucas Brown two decades ago, after catching Brown at his regular Wednesday night gig with the late Philadelphia tenor icon Bootsy Barnes, at Ortleib’s Jazzhaus.

“I remember when Lucas first started playing the organ,” he said, over the phone from Philadelphia. “He was mostly a guitar player and a piano player, but then he started playing organ, and playing really good, very fast. He’s 10 years younger than me, so I was watching him when I was 30, and he was 20.”

What stood out for DeFrancesco wasn’t so much Brown’s chops, but his ideas. In particular, he was struck by Brown’s harmonic concept, and the way it meshed with his rhythmic approach, maintaining the organ trio groove while expanding its vocabulary.

“I wanted to do this kind of a band for a long time,” DeFrancesco said. “And I dabbled a couple different times with other organ players, because I love to play piano and Rhodes, and I wanted to play some chords with my left hand and have somebody take over the bass line.”

But as he got his tenor chops together, the need for another organist in the band became more pressing. “Trumpet, at least, I could play with one hand, right?” he said. (Indeed, as jazz spectacle, watching DeFrancesco solo on trumpet while comping on organ with his left hand ranks with seeing Rahsaan Roland Kirk play three saxophones at once.)

If DeFrancesco were truly to devote himself to playing both trumpet and tenor, he would need a second organist. But not another Joey DeFrancesco.

“That would be kind of silly, right?” he said. “I wanted somebody who has a lot of harmonic knowledge, who has the versatility to be able to play the tunes I want to play, that could play a good bass [line]. You got to be able to groove, you know?”

Brown met all three criteria, but it was his guitar playing that clinched the deal. “I mean, where are you going to find that: an organ player that really plays the guitar? Not plays at the guitar. He actually has a voice on guitar, it’s got that sparse kind of thing.

“And it feels great when he plays,” DeFrancesco said. “Every note he plays comes straight from his heart.”

As for a drummer, DeFrancesco had worked with Michael Ode on the 2018 album You’re Driving Me Crazy, a collaboration with singer Van Morrison, and decided to put him together with Brown for a sort of test-drive. “We did we did some gigs, and I felt great,” he said. “It worked out perfectly.” Then it was off to Arizona to cut the album.

“As far as I’m concerned, Philly is really the home of jazz organ,” Brown said. “Without even thinking, you could name five or six world-famous organists from here: Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott, Joey, Jack McDuff, Don Patterson … .”

DeFrancesco credits that rich vein to Smith, who he says sparked the city’s jazz organ craze back in the ’60s when he was part of the Don Garner Trio. “Don Garner was a drummer, and also an R&B singer, and he was very popular. They would play in Philly a lot, at weddings and things like that. And Jimmy Smith played at Jimmy McGriff’s sister’s wedding. That’s when McGriff first heard the organ, and got bit by the bug. Then he told his friend Groove Holmes about it. And then Shirley Scott found out about it, and Trudy Pitts. And then it just it started. Charles Earland, myself. And Don Patterson wound up in Philly. So, yeah, fill it up. You just got a rich history for the organ.

“I shouldn’t even be from Philly,” he added. “My family’s from Niagara Falls, New York. My grandparents came to Niagara Falls on both sides, from Europe, years ago. My mom and dad were born in Niagara Falls, they met in Niagara Falls and they had their first two kids in Niagara Falls.” His father, Papa John DeFrancesco, is also a jazz organist, but his bread-and-butter was a job with Boeing, and in the late ’60s, the aircraft company transferred him to Philadelphia. “So I ended up being born in Philadelphia, in the lineage of the town where all the organ players are,” he said, laughing. “It just happened to work out like that.”

Although Scott tended to work with a bass player and a drummer, the typical Philadelphia organ trio consists of organ, guitar and drums, with the bass line carried by the organist’s left hand (or, occasionally, pedals). That bass line is the backbone of what drummer Anwar Marshall describes by phone from Philadelphia as the organ trio’s core rhythmic concept: Steady quarter-note time carried by the bass and the ride cymbal. “Also, there’s letting the organist dictate the dynamic rise and fall of the group, with the rest of the limbs free to respond,” he said. “But that driving, quarter-note feel is definitely the hallmark of that style.”

Marshall, who was brought into the trio after Michael Ode discovered he was already booked for DeFrancesco’s tour dates, has played in a number of organ combos, including a group called Skyline with Brown, and guitarist Ed Cherry’s trio with organist Kyle Koehler. (He also drums with Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force.)

Playing with DeFrancesco is a bit different than other organ gigs. “Joey told me his concept is that his left hand, and the pedals of course, is modeled after great bass players, and his right and is sort of like a horn player,” he said. “And obviously he’s also a great horn player in his own right. Now, not to say that he doesn’t come directly from the great organ tradition, because he’s spent a lot of time with great organists. But his concept is more of like playing with two people instead of one. It’s like a trio with only two people. He’s really got a split brain that way.”

That said, DeFrancesco isn’t just about the melodic line. He sat in for a couple tracks on Terell Stafford and the Temple University Jazz Ensemble’s Jimmy Heath tribute Without You, No Me, and hearing him comp on the band’s arrangement of “Perdido” comes as a real treat, especially since organ comping is not something regularly found on big band recordings.

“That’s true,” he said. “Like on the Jimmy Smith/Oliver Nelson albums [Bashin’: The Unpredictable Jimmy Smith and Hobo Flats], he didn’t comp at all.

“You know, I’m biiiiig on comping. I mean, this probably sounds a little silly, but if somebody is really killing it, I can be happy playing comp and not take a solo all night. Because when you’re comping, it’s not just you’re accompanying [the soloist]. You’re accompanying the whole situation. It’s like a cushion for the soloist. Not to push, but to enhance what they’re doing, and that’s always been a thing of mine.”

It’s also why he tends to be picky about guitar players. “The way most guitar players comp hasn’t evolved enough, harmonically, to be able to play the way Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner plays behind something. They were playing modern lines and things on guitar. Wes Montgomery, for example, or George Benson. But their comping wasn’t as modern as the lines they’re playing.

“Now if we’re talking about Count Basie Orchestra, you’ve got to have Freddie Green playing all four beats, right? But if I’m stretching it harmonically, and you’re still doing that? Wow. It’s like you’ve got the emergency brake on while I’m trying to drive.”

A better model, to DeFrancesco’s way of thinking, would be the way Jim Hall played rhythm, whether with Sonny Rollins’ band, or the Art Farmer Quartet, or in duet with Bill Evans.

“Jim Hall never made an organ record, never played on one,” he said. “We were going to make a record, but it never worked out. I wanted to make a record with him and Roy Haynes, and it just didn’t happen. But he wanted to do it, and that was enough. I was happy that he was interested.”

On More Music, there are tracks where the three play as a standard organ trio, with DeFrancesco on organ, Brown on guitar, and Ode on drums, and there are tracks where Brown switches to organ while DeFrancesco plays trumpet or tenor. On one tune, “In Times Of Reflection,” DeFrancesco alternates between between piano, where he sounds like Oscar Peterson doing Bill Evans, and trumpet with Harmon mute, while Brown plays nylon-string acoustic guitar and what sounds like double bass but is actually a keyboard, the Viscount Legend ’70s. “I really enjoyed that one,” Brown said.

There are also a couple tracks where both DeFrancesco and Brown solo on organ, and the contrast between them is instructive. “Where To Go,” a blues, starts off with DeFrancesco on trumpet and Brown on organ. After the trumpet solo, Brown takes a couple choruses on organ, followed a second organ solo, this one by DeFrancesco. Where the latter is brilliantly prolix, full of fleet-fingered runs and steadily-building intensity, the former is focused more on playful dissonance and rhythmic shading. The difference isn’t simply a matter of technique, but of concept.

“Let’s be honest,” said Brown. “Even if I wanted to play exactly like Joey, I couldn’t, because he’s a virtuoso. Like, he owns the instrument. [laughs] I have some chops, but when it’s compared to that, not really. But Monk was a huge influence on me, so I like angular stuff and playing rhythmically. I’m not spinning out those long bebop lines like Joey is. But it’s a nice foil, because the contrast is there.”

“Whoever is doing the solo is doing their own bass,” DeFrancesco said of the organ trade-offs. “Basically, when you give the nod, that means the next beat, the other guy is taking the bass. And don’t let there be a space in there, because if you hear a gap, then you’ll know that you weren’t listening for that. But we didn’t even have to fix any of that stuff in the studio. It went down like that.”

That aspect continues in the live shows, where there is usually at least one organ duo each evening.

“Lucas being a great organist, he fits right in. They complement each other very well,” Marshall said. “Lucas has clearly spent a considerable amount of time researching Joey’s playing. It’s like they feed off of each other, and it’s really cool.

“Sometimes, after a while, I can’t tell who’s doing what.” DB

  • Casey_B_2011-115-Edit.jpg

    Benjamin possessed a fluid, round sound on the alto saxophone, and he was often most recognizable by the layers of electronic effects that he put onto the instrument.

  • David_Sanborn_by_C_Andrew_Hovan.jpg

    Sanborn’s highly stylized playing and searing signature sound — frequently ornamented with thrill-inducing split-tones and bluesy bent notes — influenced generations of jazz and blues saxophonists.

  • Albert_Tootie_Heath_2014_copy.jpg

    ​Albert “Tootie” Heath (1935–2024) followed in the tradition of drummer Kenny Clarke, his idol.

  • 1_Henry_Threadgills_Zooid_by_Cora_Wagoner.jpg

    Henry Threadgill performs with Zooid at Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee.

  • MichaelCuscuna_Katz_2042_6a_1995_copy.jpg

    Cuscuna played a singular role in the world of jazz as a producer of new jazz, R&B and rock recordings; as co-founder of a leading reissue record label; as a historian, journalist and DJ; and as the man who singlehandedly kept the Blue Note label on life support.

On Sale Now
May 2024
Stefon Harris
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad