Joey DeFrancesco – In The Key Of The Universe – Mack Avenue Music Group MAC1147, 58:24 ****1/2:

(Joey DeFrancesco – organ, keyboards, trumpet; Pharaoh Sanders – alto saxophone, vocals; Billy Hart – drums; Troy Roberts – alto/tenor/soprano saxophone, acoustic bass; Sammy Figueroa – percussion)

Master organist Joey DeFrancesco is considered the premier Hammond artist of his generation. Like the great organists before him (Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Jimmy NcGriff, Shirley Scott and Dr. Lonnie Smith), his command of melody and grooves is impeccable. The son of a famous organist “Papa John” DeFrancesco, legend has him playing Jimmy Smith organ parts at five years of age. At 18, he signed with Columbia Records, releasing All Of Me which contributed to the resurgence of jazz organ in the 1980’s. At the same time, he joined Miles Davis on a European tour and learned to play the trumpet. His recording career is voluminous as a band leader and session musician. He has recorded with Jimmy Smith, John McLaughlin, Van Morrison, Miles Davis, Lee Ritenour, Pat Martino, Steve Gadd, David Sanborn and Bobby Hutcherson, to name a few. He considers himself a “musical chameleon”, fluent in all jazz disciplines, pop standards, even “Take Me Out To The Ballgame”.

On his latest release from Mack Avenue, In The Key Of The Universe, DeFrancesco has chosen to explore the spiritual side of jazz. This has been part of jazz history, most notably with John Coltrane (A Love Supreme) and Pharaoh Sanders (Karma). The organist has characterized this new project as “a more free jazz direction, but with a groove” There are 9 originals and one cover. Saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders lends his considerable talents and artistic perspective to the new album. With his band mates (Troy Roberts/saxophone/ Billy Hart/drums and Sammy Figueroa/percussion), DeFrancesco brings an integrated free/soul jazz vibe. The opening track, “Inner Being” has a tight pulse, but insinuates at free-jazz with the first lead by Roberts on soprano saxophone. At 3:00 DeFrancesco’s potent, textured organ runs glow with authenticity. “Vibrations In Blue” starts with abstract Middle-Eastern improvisation on organ and alto. They combine for a brief unison lead, as Roberts handles the first solo as organ and drums/percussion surround the alto saxophone. DeFrancesco follows with a blistering run that showcases funky rhythm and an airy openness. Organ and sax combine for an abstract improvisational finish. On “Awake And Blessed” a pared down trio (organ, saxophone, drums) initiate a spirited bebop vibe. At the 1:30 mark, DeFrancesco switches to electric piano for a different texture. Robert’s muscular tenor ensues. “It Swung Wide Open” is as advertised, scorching up tempo jazz with drum fills, and frenetically alternating organ and tremor runs with a concise drum solo.

The spiritual concept is captured on the vampy title cut. After an attention-grabbing gong, the unison leads (with creative chording) gives way to Pharaoh Sanders on tenor. His signature tonal “boundary-pushing” is avant-garde and evocative. DeFrancesco raises the instrumental bar with a dazzling organ run showcasing cool hooks, sustain and relentless tempo. The late 50’s-inspired arrangement is finely distilled jazz. A centerpiece of In The Key Of The Universe is the 11:00 minute (much shorter than the 32:00 minute version on the Karma album) of Sanders’ epic jazz hymnal “The Creator Has A Master Plan”. After an extended open-space intro (without underlying rhythm) featuring Sanders on rumbling lower-register vibrato and piercing upper-register tenor notes, Troy Roberts (on acoustic bass) brings the quintet together. Sanders’ melodic, soulful run floats on a blue groove and is backed with subtle agility by DeFrancesco (organ and piano). This is Pharoah Sanders in the spotlight and he remains the focal point with vocals and sax echo. The quintet returns on “And So It Is”. A low-keyed jam features Sanders’ sharp notation and moody inflection. DeFrancesco’s Latin-infused electric piano is a nice contemporary touch. Additionally, he accompanies Pharaoh on trumpet. There are ethereal percussion elements that help to develop an organic fusion. “Soul Perspective” has a traditional jazz resonance. With a staccato cymbal, the group glides into an accelerated waltz-time. Roberts expands the overall sound with tenor and soprano, and DeFrancesco sparkles on organ. In a ruminative statement, “A Path Through The Noise” exudes a late-night melancholy. Roberts sultry tenor segues to DeFrancesco’s trumpet solo. The finale, “Easier To Be” is jauntier and has a sort of bossa nova  tempo. Trumpet and saxophone combine seamlessly in jazz and harmonic play. Francesco’s final organ solo is fierce and graceful.

Joey DeFrancescoIn The Key Of The Universe is vital, artistic jazz with a distinct musical vision. 

TrackList: 
Inner Being
Vibrations In Blue
Awake And Blessed
It Swung Wide Open
In The Key Of The Universe
The Creator Has A Master Plan
And So It Is
Soul Perspective
A Path Through The Noise
Easier To Be

—Robbie Gerson

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