Q&A: Dr. Lonnie Smith Talks About His New Album, How Playing the Organ Makes Him Feel, and Returning to NYC

Posted on Monday April 4th in

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(Photo: Benedict Smith)

An organ virtuoso, Dr. Lonnie Smith has been known for his soulful funk-jazz sounds going on 50 years now. His most recent album, Evolution, came out earlier this year, earning universal praise across the world. Dr. Lonnie’s U.S. tour kicks off this week at Brooklyn Bowl on Wednesday. And last week he rang up Knockdown Alley from Florida to talk about his new album, how the organ chose him, and returning home.

Your new album, Evolution is getting rave reviews. But after all these years, do you even pay attention to reviews? Do they mean anything to you? Did you ever pay attention to reviews? Well, I love playing. So playing is my main concern — doing it and doing it right and making people happy. That means a lot to me. Reviews are nice when someone tells you about it.

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Well I can tell you that people are saying this is one of the best albums of your considerable career. And you’ve had quite a career, so I suppose that’s saying something. But you made your name and rose to fame as the preeminent Hammond B-3 organist with Blue Note in the late ’60s. And then you went away, and now you’re back with them 45 years later. What brought you back to Blue Note? I don’t think I ever left because it’s a relationship that we have. I think that we’re family. No matter where you stray off to you’re just, you know, part of the family. I went off but I didn’t go anywhere. I was still there. Meeting [Blue Note president] Don Was was perfect because he also is a really, really great producer.

How’d you meet him? I met him doing concerts, you know, quite naturally. We’ve known each other from the past. I used to play in Detroit many years ago — I used to play behind a lot of Motown groups back in the day — but he has always been prominent in the music business. I met him again when we were doing a concert for Blue Note, and it hit. And it struck me, and it struck him. And it’s wonderful that we hooked up because it’s a match.

Unfairly or not, jazz is often thought of as a genre with primarily older fans, but Evolution comes right at you with that first track, “Play It Back” with Robert Glasper on keys. It’s, like, shake-it music. As a listener you just can’t sit still. Was there anything to that? You know, you’re back on Blue Note and you’re coming out hot from the start? Or is that just the way it worked? [Laughing] That’s the way it worked. I wasn’t thinking of that at all. It just really worked because of the musicians — Robert and all of them — are great musicians. They were there right from the start. So it made it happen. They made it happen. They had a big part in it because the feeling was there. You know, some people you play with, they don’t jell too well. You make a record and they’re nice, they’re just there. And that’s it. But they jelled. It was really fun. The only thing about that record was [whispering] it was fast! That’s the old Blue Note days. That’s what we used to do. We didn’t waste time in the studio. Today they waste time in the studio because that’s what kind of shattered the record business because they spent a lot of time, spent a lot of money, and they don’t get nothing resolved because it has to be perfect. Today, they’re tweaking everything. It’s like making Frankenstein out of it. It has to be perfect instead of play the music and enjoy the music. Put it down once or twice, that’s enough. Leave it alone. Because that’s what it is. That’s what you feel at that moment.

On Evolution, you cover Monk’s “Straight No Chaser” and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things.” And you’ve covered plenty of others over the course of your career. What goes into the process of choosing a song to cover? Oh, that’s kind of difficult because when I play or I hear a song, I like the song. It’s not just something I do, to say I’m gonna make a hit — or I’m going to try to make a hit. I enjoy the song, and I have to do what I hear, what I love. That’s the thing about Don Was. He didn’t stop that. He was for it. He wanted me to be me, and a lot of times that does not happen in the studio. They take all of that away from you.

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It’s like the producer thinks it’s his album, right? [Laughing] You got it.

So going back to the beginning, what brought you to a Hammond B-3? Was there something about the sound, the tone, calling to you? Or maybe it was just what was available? [Laughing] No, kind of like a multiple choice, all of the above. You know it’s like a test, right. What happened was I was always drawn to the organ. Many, many, many years ago, they always had them in churches. First of all, they had pianos. And then they started bringing organs in. And the thing about it is it just felt great to me. And then I started hearing it on the radio — Wild Bill, Milt Buckner, Count Basie, Fats Waller and all of ’em. And then Jimmy Smith, and that was it. There was no choice. I did not choose to do this. It was there. It was like an extension of my body. I would go sit in the music store. I would sit ’til closing time every day. One day the owner said, “Son, can I ask you a question?” I said, “Yes, sir.” He says, “Why do you come in here every day and sit until closing time?” I said, “Sir, if I had an instrument, I could learn how to play it. And if I could learn how to play it, I’d get a job, and I could make a living.” It must’ve stuck with him. Every day, I would go in. And one day, I went in and he closed the door at closing time and took me in the back and opened the other door. OK, I heard the voices! The skies opened up and everything was beautiful — and we found each other. And I went over to the organ and I sat at it. Didn’t know how to play it but I didn’t care. And he says, “If you can get this out of here, it’s yours.” I put in the back of a pickup truck. It was snowing — Buffalo now — really bad. The real snow. So I put it in the back, and I was holding this organ tight, my arms around it. I got it to the house, and I didn’t even know how to turn it on. But you know what happened? The organ was an extension of me. That’s all it is to me, an extension. When I play it, it’s like a fire inside. It’s like electricity that goes through my body. That’s what I feel. It’s precious. It’s a passion. It’s a wonderful feeling.

You’re kicking off your U.S. tour next week, and you recently did a string of European shows. Do you notice if your music is received differently over there than it is at home? In Europe, in the early years, it was received. But now you have everyone. I go to Japan, I go to Australia, I go everywhere, Hong Kong. And the people are into it. Things I didn’t see in the earlier days.

Do you think some of that has to do with the Internet and the world becoming a smaller place? Yes, I think that, plus we have good agents. And the radio. Now it’s even more — take for instance — you have young people sampling the music and the elderly people — my age and older — now there’s a mixture of both. So it’s a great thing. And now in Europe, they listen and they really appreciate it. But in America, they enjoy it also, but it depends on the venue. And I’ve been playing nice venues.

Brooklyn Bowl’s nice. You’ll like it. [Laughing] As long as they don’t throw any shoes at me.

That won’t happen, I promise. In Europe, you toured as a trio. But your tour that kicks off next week, you’re gonna be backed by six musicians. How does that affect your sound and change your show? It changes. I’m glad you asked that. I’m used to playing with a trio. When you’re playing with a trio, it leaves a lot of options because my mind is always changing. Take for instance, we’d be in the studio at Blue Note years ago and the guys would be like, “Play this.” See, I play by ear. But everybody I play with is a reading musician — I mean they read music. So what happens is I say, “Play this,” but then I want to change it. And they say, “You told us to play this, and then you played that.” So then I say, “Well, play this.” And then it’s “Stop, hold it” every time. So I keep changing it. They say, “We better write something down here.” Because that’s the way I play. It’s gonna change, guaranteed. You’re not gonna hear the exact sound you hear on the record. You’re gonna hear the record but don’t expect it to sound identical like the record because I feel different every moment, every set. Tomorrow’s gonna be different. It feels different all the time. The reason for that is you have to play life. Life. You can’t just play notes. What about your story? You have a story to tell. So the people want to hear that story.

About your show at Brooklyn Bowl, will you be playing exclusively from Evolution? Will you be playing from earlier in your catalog? What can we expect? I will be making it up. I’ll definitely be playing something from the new CD for sure — and the last CD. I’m definitely going to have some fun. And I want the fellas to have some fun, too. I don’t play music just to hear myself. I want to hear you, too. I didn’t hire you to put you on the back burner. So sometimes the song gets to be long and I have to cut someone’s solo because I want to hear someone else’s solo. And that’s what you’ll be hearing.

What are you most looking forward to about coming back to New York City and playing Brooklyn? I love New York, you know, I’m a New Yorker originally, so it’s playing at home. It’s home.

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