New York Jazz Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith

Larry Blumenfeld,  The Wall Street Journal

Beneath his black turban, above his long white beard, Buffalo native Dr. Lonnie Smith’s eyes grew large and his grin wide at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard not too long ago. It was his 70th birthday, which he celebrated by doing what he’s done for nearly a half-century: Building and then deconstructing hard-swinging grooves; reveling in the sonic possibilities of a Hammond B-3 organ; surprising listeners and bandmates with sudden rhythmic and dynamic shifts; and easing into ballads with disarming sweetness andJazz Organist Lonnie Smith absorbing soul. The listeners who packed the room traced Mr. Smith’s moods, growing silent at some points and erupting with applause and even laughter at others.

Mr. Smith is emblematic of a jazz organ tradition and yet is also an exception. His approach to the instrument is quirky and personal, without much adherence to convention. He summons mystery or humor as befits the moment. He’s been that way from the start.

At the Jazz Standard he sang, in falsetto, the groove of “Backtrack,” an original composition that opens “The Healer.” This new CD, the first release on his independent label, Pilgrimage Productions, captures the searching spirit of his working trio, with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jamire Williams Dr. Lonnie Smith(Allison Miller filled in ably on drums at the Jazz Standard). By the weekend, Mr. Smith’s trio had morphed into an octet, with three saxophones, a trumpet and a percussionist.

Fronting this group, he played songs from his next studio CD, “In the Beginning,” named for a tune on his 1967 debut album as a leader, “Finger-Lickin’ Good.” The music often rode an Afro-Latin jazz groove, and Mr. Smith’s exchanges with guitarist Ed Cherry recalled his tight rapport with George Benson at the start of his career.

When this jazz organist performed at the Pine Grill Jazz Reunion in Buffalo, N.Y. recently, Mr. Smith honored the legacy of the long-defunct Pine Grill, one of his earliest stomping grounds. “There was a lot of music in Buffalo when I was growing up,” he said. And in his home, too: His mother and aunts sang gospel in churches and on radio. Though he played trumpet in school, he began performing as a teenage singer in doo-wop groups modeled after the Platters and the Flamingos.

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Dr. Lonnie Smith at the Dakota Jazz Club In Minneapolis: