An Interview With Joey DeFrancesco: Dr. Lonnie Smith, New Recordings, & Music In The Age Of COVID

Oct 1, 2021

Organist Joey DeFrancesco
Credit Joey DeFrancesco

Organist Joey DeFrancesco returns to our area. He's at the Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor this weekend. He spoke to 89.1 Jazz host Michael Jewett about his new recording, the state of the music scene in the age of COVID, and the lasting influence of the late Dr. Lonnie Smith.

Jewett: Great news for music fans back in Ann Arbor tonight and tomorrow night at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor. Organist Joey DeFrancesco. Hey, it's great to talk to you. And how's everything going?

DeFrancesco: Great to talk to you, too. Everything's going really well. It's good to be back at it and playing again.

Jewett: Indeed, indeed, that's a that's a big question. I wish I kind of want to wait until the end. I want to just, you know, touch on some other stuff first. You know, as we speak, I want to let everybody know tonight and tomorrow night, it's their dinner in a show format. Do you have any questions, tickets, whatnot? The good folks at the blue. I can deal with all that blue llama club dot com one long word blue llama club dot com. You know, before we talk about what's happening in everything, I think a lot of us in the music world, fans of jazz, organ musicians and whatnot are the life and legacy of the late Lonnie Smith. This really hit us with some big and sad news this week. Do you have some feeling, some enduring feelings about about Dr. Lonnie Smith, or maybe some a first impression or whatever?

DeFrancesco: Well, sure. First of all, we were good friends and we did a lot of things over the years together. TV shows a few recordings. We were all over the world doing different things together from time to time, and those were always great moments. And he's been struggling with his health quite a bit for the last couple of years. And this a strong man fighter. And, you know, it saddens us to see us see him go, you know? But you have such a great catalog and he has such if you knew him, his spirit was so huge. You know that all that's still going to be with us, you know?

Jewett: Yeah, I just there's this incredible outpouring of of love for the man and his music. If you had to like, turn somebody on, I'm going to, you know, because musicians, you know, have such a keen ear for for art and whatnot. If you had to turn somebody on to Lonnie Smith, maybe expose them for the first time. Is there a piece of music I'm asking about if you're going to be a guest deejay here for a minute? Joey DeFrancesco picks a representative Lonnie Smith track.

DeFrancesco: Well, you know, the thing is, Lonnie, that you know he's been an artist since the 60s. You know, on the scene started out with George Benson's band and he was basically still, you know what? We all are always still learning how to play, but he was really in the new stages only instrument back then. Yeah, and then and then he meets. He had some hit records on blue note. Those are great ones called Move your hand. Yeah, that would probably be the first one, I would suggest for some of them to check out.

Jewett: Oh, cool, cool. I will definitely spend it. I will definitely spend that, as you know and credit you as being, you know, Hey, yeah, it's a good answer. That's actually a super cool, funky thing. Yeah, that's a that's a cool one. So move your hand from Lonnie Smith on the way later today on WEMU, I'm speaking with organist Joey DeFrancesco. He is in town at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor tonight and tomorrow night again for complete information. Tickets all the good stuff. Blue Llama Club dot com one long word on your new album. It's been out a couple of months now. More music. I have to ask, though. I mean, you're playing the organ piano. I think some keyboards, trumpet, tenor, saxophone. You do some vocal work here. Are you still comfortable being called an organist? I almost feel like we should. Well, I usually say things like the multitalented, you know, richly talented Joey DeFrancesco. But do you think people are going to start putting you in the multi-instrumentalist category or something? Not that I hate to categorize categorize musicians, but you display a lot of talent on a lot of instruments.

DeFrancesco: Oh, thank you. Well, you know, and the album, actually the album's fairly new came out officially September 24th, but I think maybe the radio station I

Jewett: See, that's yeah, you're right, because we've been spinning it for you. Well, you know what? There's a new Joey DeFrancesco record opening up and start playing it. It's like, that's kind of our approach. That's right. That's right.

DeFrancesco: And I appreciate that.

Jewett: Yeah, it's great. It's a little it's a little. Yeah, it's it's newer for everybody else. But that's right. So it's been only been out actually OK a while now. Yeah.

DeFrancesco: Yeah. So the multi-instrumentalist thing, well, that's I mean, that's who I am, I've been there for so many years, right? You know, I get the big acknowledgment for the organ because I've kind of dominated that area for so long now that that's the first thing somebody is going to think of when they think of me. And that's my first voice. Yeah. You know, because I played that, that's when I started out. But I considered all the instruments, you know, people say secondary instrument, things like that. I consider all the instruments, my my instrument, I don't consider one first or second. I love them all equally. And you know, the media and fans or they can, you know, call it what they want.

Jewett: They don't go, What's the old adage? I don't care what you call me, as long as you call me, you know, it's like, Get my hair. You go get my get my name out there, you know? Very good. I feel like we kind of know, kind of, you know, the vibe, the direction and whatnot of you as an organist. But there are other trumpeters or tenor saxophonist that you in particular enjoy listening to or you found, you know, very influential on your work.

DeFrancesco: Yeah, there's so many of them, but you know, the thing is is that my approach to playing the organ was always very influenced by horn players. You know, I always thought of my left hand as a bass and my and my foot left foot, and then my right hand was like either a tenor saxophone or a trumpet. And you know, I'm going to list off all the names that everybody said John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, George Coleman. I love Charles Lloyd. A lot to be out and Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson,

Jewett: Who you featured on your previous record. Great Pharaoh Sanders.

DeFrancesco: Oh, that's right, he's on my last record, and that is really what inspired me to want to pick up the tenor saxophone. OK, so. I've been playing almost three years now. I dabbled with it many years ago for a couple of weeks, but then put it down, but over the past in November, it'll be three years. I've gotten very serious about it and my grandfather was a man, so I had his. I had the opportunity to play his saxophone to. In fact, last time I was in Ann Arbor, I had it with me. I played there. You know, I just at that point, I had only been playing for maybe six months. So I'm kind of brave.

Jewett: You're a courageous man. Yeah, it pays off. You know, there's probably a lesson in that for, you know, or, you know, you're well-established. You've been active in music for four decades now and whatnot, and you're still adding new things, new voices, new. And it's not, you know, you're not sticking with, you know, with one thing per se, that's got to be some inspiration. Do you kind of like pass that along to other musicians or just audience members? Is like, Hey, you know, pick pick up an instrument, learn, learn to learn a craft, you know, it's never. Yeah, definitely.

DeFrancesco: Well, the thing is is, once you've you know, I've been playing music for four for forty six years. And you know, the thing about it is once you know, you get one instrument that you get pretty familiar with. Like I always say, you know, you never you can you keep exploring with one instrument forever. But you know, and then having all the instruments dating people that you listen to, you have these sounds in your head. So you have a pretty good idea even before you pick up another instrument. What you have in mind to have for a sound and then it's just a matter of learning how to work the instrument mechanically, you know? Right? Okay. Yeah. About yeah. So it doesn't take as long. It's not as hard as everybody thinks. Once you've got one that, you know, if you've been around it and I'm around all these cats all the time. So I've always been interested in the other instruments and very observant and asked a lot questions.

Jewett: So well, stay inquisitive. You mentioned being on the scene and being an active musician for over 40 years. You're part of this generation of musicians. You know, a few years ago, everyone was tagged as a young lion. You've been roaring for years now. How do you think your perspective has changed, say, since the earlier days, 80s and 90s up to today? You know your established leader now and everything. How do you what do you think has been a big change in the way you look at the music, art or the music business?

DeFrancesco: While the music business is, you know, there's something that I've never been very good at. You know, and I never had the right representation for many years over the past 10 years. Excellent representation. Okay. Which has been my wife, Gloria. She she is. She does all the business stuff. And she also is part of the musical Part two, producing and mixing them all that. And so it's been good for me to have somebody that really pays attention to that. That was something I wasn't interested in. And so I like to be all about music, but I've seen a lot of things change over the years, and when I first was in a record deal was a major thing to have, and I was with major labels with Columbia Records, my first five records. And you know, there were real recall budgets because you don't have the piracy, you don't have the internet like you do now. So it was a different kind of vibe. You actually sold a lot of records, you know? And so it's just there were there was a lot of clubs, but there's still a lot of clubs and it's always good. That's why a new club like this, only a couple of years old, so could have venues like this to be able to play for people. You know, that's the business part of the music part. You know, I mean, we just keep trying to push it forward is a lot of young guys are playing really great and the music is really moving and in good hands. And you can say for me, I just try to be more and more innovative. I'm more in touch with the spiritual side of things. I've always felt that music was extremely spiritual for me. But as you mature as a human being too, you learn more about that, understand and get more closer to it, you know.

Jewett: Mm hmm. I'm speaking with Joey DeFrancesco. He and his group are in town tonight and tomorrow night at the Blue LLama Jazz Club in Ann Arbor. Complete information tickets. All the good stuff. Blue LLama Club dot com. You're the honor of actually playing the grand opening for the Blue LLama points. It feels like ages ago, it seems like the last couple of years have taken a little longer than a couple of years in the before time. You played the grand opening for the Blue Llama. You're back at it, back on the road and playing the club again, or when you play venues that you are familiar with, are you? Does the music take on a different level or something because you are? Because you don't have to, like, learn the room or whatnot or you're more familiar, do you feel like more comfortable in a venue, you know?

DeFrancesco: Really, I mean, I love all venues. I love playing everywhere, you always figured out how to play pretty quickly, especially when you've been at it as long as I have. All right. But you do have certain venues that you look forward going to because you get the vibe of the place, people that are there and the whole vibe and the city attorney. And this one is definitely one. I've always loved playing in our prime and I remember the days of playing a bird of paradise.

Jewett: Right, right. Yeah, that's not.

DeFrancesco: So that's always yeah. And so it's always been a pleasure to play that town. And I always have a special meaning for me. And when I get to play Blue Llama in 2019, I was really pleased to see such a beautiful venue.

Jewett: Yeah, yeah. It's pretty cool. Pretty cool. I want to thank you really for your time and whatnot, but I do want to ask you one big question is it maybe not that big of a question? How do you feel? Or I guess I'm asking a kind of a state of jazz question in light of the pandemic, in light of the COVID, in light of COVID or, you know, some venues have been impacted. Of course, musicians have slowed down. But I want to ask you this question because it's like recordings we've gotten about basically as many jazz recordings as we do on on any given year. And I've been to a lot of people, you know, this is actually really kind of a cool era for jazz records. There's a lot of different records out. There are people making really, really great statements. How do you feel jazz is doing in lights? And I'm not so much the business, but maybe a bit of the business, but also the art. How do you feel the music is doing, you know, at this stage of the pandemic, what do you feel like? The state of jazz is the vis-a-vis COVID?

DeFrancesco: Well, I think, you know, it put a lot of people in a position where they had to stay home and, you know, I was always moving around a lot and playing and, you know, doing my best to keep it together when I had downtime, you know, working on music and working on my instruments and things like that. But, you know, to have that much time, I mean, the last gig I did in 2018 was March 15th, right? And then everything shut down the next day, basically. So it was a bittersweet moment at first. It was really strange. But then it was kind of a bittersweet moment in time where we could really get nothing else to do, but was zooming in and focus on what you what you're going to sign with. So you didn't go crazy. And a studio situation for recording can be a very safe environment. It's done properly, so it made it possible for, okay, so we're not going to be on the road. Let's get it together and get in the studio and do some of these to take this opportunity to do that, you know? So that's why I think a lot of cats have been very prolific, like you said, and there's a lot of live streaming going on. I didn't do a whole lot of that when I was there. I used usually get it. I did it actually for no cost, just for people, right? Yeah, they're doing. Enjoy some music, but it's opened up a lot of opportunities for people to do that. And you know, it's just it's important to play live, though for audiences. Streaming is cool, but you know, the most important share this music is to be able to share with a live audience because there's nothing like that. But I think the state of jazz is okay, and I think, you know, it was roughly two separate businesses and close. But now things are coming around and we have to move on and we got to get through this. Can't stay locked up forever. So, you know, we've got to do things in the most, safest way we can and keep everything going.

Jewett: Very good. Very good. The new album Mack Avenue release more music. That's what it's called more music, and we certainly have that. Joey DeFrancesco and his group tonight and tomorrow night at the Blue Llama Jazz Club in downtown and over again for complete information on Blue Llama Club dot com. Jody Francesco, thank you for your time. We look forward to your shows this weekend.

DeFrancesco: Thanks for having me, Mike, and I look forward to being there very excited already.

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—Michael Jewett is the WEMU weekday jazz host.  Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at studio@wemu.org