Friday night I had the chance to see Joey DeFrancesco perform at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival’s opening night. DeFrancesco is widely regarded as the best jazz organist in the world and it was my first time seeing him live. I first learned about him in 1989 when he released his debut album for Columbia at age 17. At the time many thought the organ in jazz had run its course and there wasn’t much innovation happening on the instrument in a jazz context. But this young phenom with skills far beyond his years seemed to bring the instrument back.
Even now I remember the passion with which he approached (attacked?) the organ on his first CD. There was no doubt that this was a player who was going to be a fixture at the very top of the jazz scene for a long time. After seeing him on Friday I was talking with someone who saw DeFrancesco play back in the early 90s and he told me he thought he literally saw his Hammond B3 organ smoking from being played with such intensity.
There was no lack of that intensity in the Ottawa show. But what struck me even more was his total command of the instrument. The B3 is a complicated machine with wide-ranging tonal possibilities. But most players will pull standard sounds from it that are familiar to most fans of organ-based jazz. But this time I was hearing sounds come out of the instrument that I had never heard before. Even his bandmates seemed surprised at some of the sounds he was coaxing from it. I won’t say he made it look easy, because DeFrancesco was WORKING, but watching him, one gets the sense that he’s the magician, the organ is his hat, and he knows exactly what he’s about to reveal to the audience next.
What a joy to see a musician of that caliber leave it all on the stage for the audience. And what a great way to kick off this year’s festival.