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Too Damn Hot! by Dr. Lonnie Smith

Dr. Lonnie Smith is back where he belongs at the top of the readers’ and critics’ polls for jazz organist. Some of the members of the first generation of B-3 masters have passed away or are musically inactive. Interestingly, most of the second-generation organ jazz players learned how to play the instrument from listening to those masters’ records, and not from the gospel music of the church. But Smith, one of the jazz organ players from the end of its heyday when he and George Benson formed their own group and moved to New York, was always one of its most unpredictable too. Fond of surprise and extreme dynamics, Smith can punctuate a gentle phrase with a screaming top-volume note from out of nowhere or develop a chorus through a series of dramatic devices before concluding with an exclamation arising from several choruses of building excitement. Smith’s fans instantly feel the emotion contained within his music and respond accordingly with shouts and claps and laughter. It wasn’t that long ago that Smith seemed to be in hibernation when he played regularly his turban blooming like a rose atop his head, his gown flowing to his ankles and his jewelry glittering from his wrists and neck at a pick-up bar called O’Hara’s Pub & Sidewalk Café on Los Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. There, the quality of music received scant attention from the partying crowd largely taking for granted Smith’s groove or Danny Burger’s drumming or Turk Mauro’s swing. And jazz enthusiasts elsewhere were left to savor Smith’s earlier recordings during his period of low profile.

Perhaps Smith’s re-emergence in Lou Donaldson’s group, and especially their engagements at the Village Vanguard, led to the rediscovery of his work. Whatever the reason, Smith started spending more time in New York, performing in venues like Lincoln Center and Smoke, pursuing more recording activity, involving himself in engaging projects like the tributes to Jimi Hendrix he shared with John Abercrombie, and attaining growing recognition. And now Smith has taken his career to a higher level by signing with Palmetto Records, which just released his first CD on the label, Too Damn Hot!

Like other successful leads of B-3 groups, Smith brings out the best in his guitarists, and that’s certainly true on Too Damn Hot! which features not one, but two guitarists, Peter Bernstein and Rodney Jones. While Smith can kick off a piece with melody and groove rooted by bass pedal work, eventually Bernstein, years ago a Donaldson protégé, takes the cue to develop his own bright solos, Jones keeping the group in motion on rhythm guitar. That success of that concept becomes apparent on Smith’s one-chord composition from his early boogaloo recordings with Donaldson, "One Cylinder." The rhythm the feel of the music trumps the "necessity" of harmonic changes on the 7-minute-long track, a test of improvisational skills without the crutch of modulations.

All of the music on Too Damn Hot was written by Smith, the exceptions being Horace Silver’s slowly performed, glossy "Silver Serenade" and the understated waltz of "Someday My Prince Will Come." Those sidetracks contrast with the humor of Smith’s compositions, the humor being at its most obvious when one he sings, "Your Mama’s Got A Complex" ("she thinks she’s hot but hot she’s not"). Like Smith’s other tunes, "Your Mama’s Got A Complex" appears to be based upon a single idea, and its words result from singing the instrumental hook. Driven by Greg Hutchinson’s street beat and reminiscent of Idris Muhammad’s famous work with Donaldson, Benson and Smith, "Norleans" provides opportunities for Smith & Co. to stretch out, animating the music with a sense of fun.

But the title track, against expectations suggested by its title, unfolds as a slow ballad and sets up leisurely improvisations. Smith’s solo, in particular the section when he plays a single flutter over two choruses, is one of the CD’s more imaginative explorations, along with his unstoppable energy, as if gaining momentum through inertia, on "Evil Turn."

With the release of Too Damn Hot, Dr. Lonnie Smith (so named decades ago to differentiate himself from Lonnie Liston Smith), has reclaimed the attention of listeners devoted to the inimitable sounds of the Hammond B-3 organ, now undergoing a mini-revival by thirty-somethings who have gravitated to the new Hammond-Suzuki B-3. One of the innovators of original Hammond B-3 organ jazz, Smith has remained so damn hot that few other players can burn with such intensity.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dr. Lonnie Smith
  • CD Title: Too Damn Hot!
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: Palmetto
  • Tracks: Norleans, Too Damn Hot, Back Track, The Whip, Silver Serenade, Track 9, One Cylinder, Someday My Prince Will Come, Your Mama’s Got A Complex, Evil Turn
  • Musicians: Dr. Lonnie Smith (B-3 organ), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Rodney Jones (rhythm guitar), Greg Hutchinson, Fukushi Tainaka (drums)
  • Rating: Four Stars
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