Artist: Dr. Lonnie Smith
Label: Blue Note
Formats: CD, Digital
Release date: March 26, 2021
The reigning master of the Hammond B-3 organ, Dr. Lonnie Smith has ruled the soul jazz scene from his keyboard for over five decades. Still a prolific recording artist, the musical icon has just released Breathe, his third album for Blue Note in the last five years, all produced by the label’s president, Don Was. The majority of the tracks were recorded live at the Jazz Standard in New York City in 2017 during Smith’s 75th birthday celebration, in the seemingly long-ago days when one could hang out at a crowded club on the weekends. Fans weary of social distancing can now vicariously join the celebration through album’s eight tracks.
Smith takes his longtime trio for a spin on Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy,” with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake deftly anchoring Smith’s quirky organ passages. The trio is also featured on Smith’s original tune, “World Weeps,” a prescient dirge that both mourns and soothes, with climatic moments that encapsulate the fear and frenzy of these turbulent and uncertain times. Expanding to a sextet with a horn section, the other live tunes on the album have a funkier vibe, from the classic sounds of “Too Damn Hot” to the gospel inflected “Pilgrimage,” featuring the amazing vocals of Alicia Olatuja and a virtuosic guitar solo from Kriesberg.
The album is bookmarked by two new tracks recorded in Miami with Iggy Pop, who joined Smith’s trio for the sessions along with percussionist Richard Bravo. The two icons had previously met at a club in Florida where Smith was performing, and it was Iggy who suggested a future collaboration. The two selected the 1972 hit, “Why Can’t We Live Together,” by soul singer and organist Timmy Thomas as the opening track. Though the band provides a lush tropical groove, Iggy’s somewhat hesitant vocals lack the conviction required for this message song. Closing with another hit from back in the day, Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman,” the collaboration really gels, with Iggy vocals infinitely better suited to the psychedelic vibes of the song.
Though now 78-years-old, Dr. Lonnie Smith has certainly not lost any of his B3 magic. In fact, his keyboard chops have become more burnished with age. In a time when anxieties are extremely high, Smith’s new album allows us an opportunity to just sit back, enjoy the groove and Breathe.
Reviewed by Brenda Nelson-Strauss