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Joey DeFrancesco Contemplates the "Soul" in Soul Jazz, with 'In The Key Of The Universe'

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Michael Woodall
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Joey DeFrancesco has spent the last 30 years as a reigning Hammond B-3 organ hero, building on the rich tradition we know as soul jazz. What that means in practical terms is variable: DeFrancesco has led trios and larger combos; worked with his heroes, including Jimmy Smith; and even collaborated with Van Morrison.

Running through every corner of Joey D’s expression is a commitment to groove and uplift — hallmarks of the subgenre that proudly claims him. “In musical terms,” WBGO’s Bob Porter writes in his book Soul Jazz: Jazz in the Black Community, 1945-1975, “the reference to soul meant the combination of Southern blues and music from the black church to form a new hybrid.” 

On his next album, DeFrancesco extends that view outward, to the searching spirituality that pervaded Afrocentric jazz of the 1970s. In The Key Of The Universe, which Mack Avenue Records will release on March 1, finds the B-3 virtuoso in dialogue with a leading proponent of that era, saxophonist Pharoah Sanders. The redoubtable drummer Billy Hart, who played on Sanders’ touchstone Karma in 1969, also returns here — notably on a flowing new version of “The Creator Has A Master Plan.”

In a press statement, DeFrancesco explains his motivation:

As I grow older, I find myself attracted to a more spiritual vibe. It’s always been that way, to some extent – especially playing music and going into the zone, which has to do with being in touch with the universe. It’s not about religion, it’s just a spiritual vibe that respects everything, in music and in life.

That energy prevails even on the portion of the album without Sanders — as on the opening track, “Inner Being,” which has its premiere here. With Troy Roberts on soprano saxophone, Sammy Figueroa on percussion and Hart on drums, it’s a welcoming overture in a loping 7/8 meter, with an affirmative and catchy melody.

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Joey DeFrancesco appears with trumpeter Chris Botti this weekend at SFJAZZ, before boarding The Jazz Cruise. He’ll be on tour with his band in February, and has a pair of spring concerts scheduled with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, on May 17 and 18. For more information, visit his website.

In The Key of The Universe will be available on March 1. Preorder here.

DeFrancesco will also be the subject of an upcoming radio episode of Jazz Night in America, hosted by his old high-school classmate and Mack Avenue labelmate, Christian McBride. 

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.