By Howard Reich
November 28, 2014
Last year at this time, the mighty organist Joey DeFrancesco took the stage of the Jazz Showcase to launch a band that might well have been called his Chicago trio.
Joined by veteran Chicago drummer George Fludas and guitarist Jeff Parker, who recently had moved from Chicago to California, DeFrancesco turned in an exuberant, Thanksgiving-night set that augured well for the future of this unit.
On Thursday evening, DeFrancesco returned to the Showcase to celebrate the same holiday with the same group, which he since has taken around the world. What sounded so encouraging a year ago fulfilled that promise.
As always, DeFrancesco's organ work proved pre-eminent, if only because of the range of skills he brings to the instrument. The quicksilver nature of his technique, fluidity of his ideas, musicality of his phrases and variety of his modes of expression long have placed him in a category by himself among contemporary jazz organists. All of that was clear to hear through his first set, DeFrancesco hitting hard from the outset.
Listeners who recognized the chord progression of Cole Porter's "What Is This Thing Called Love" could be forgiven for not discerning the tune right away – DeFrancesco went out of his way to disguise it with a melody of his own. Yet shards of the original eventually rose to the surface of his solos before he finally stated the theme outright. Along the way, DeFrancesco's solos offered swirls of sound, swelling chords, ornate phrase-making and enough notes to fill several tunes.
What made this especially intriguing was the stark contrast between DeFrancesco's profusion of ideas and guitarist Parker's succinct, telegraphic, practically laconic style. Anyone who followed Parker's work during his many years in Chicago in a variety of contexts, from avant-garde to mainstream, knows the man prefers to say more with less. When faced with DeFrancesco's shower of notes, Parker played a little more guitar than usual but did not really stray from his stripped-down aesthetic.
The tension between DeFrancesco's expansive style and Parker's introverted manner piqued interest throughout "What Is This Thing Called Love" and, really, almost everything else in the set. Add to this drummer Fludas' imperturbable swing rhythm at all tempos, and you had a trio of considerable appeal.
As if to offer an olive branch to Parker, DeFrancesco next duetted with the guitarist in "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Parker taking the lead and DeFrancesco answering each phrase with straightforward, single-note lines. Here the musicians reflected the back-and-forth nature of Frank Loesser's disarming lyrics, but DeFrancesco also was sharing the spotlight with a sublimely understated musician who never seeks it. When it came time for Parker's solo, he unfurled a beautifully crafted alternate melody, the sinewy tone and substantive nature of his statement reminding listeners of what we lost when Parker headed west.
Parker stayed in the foreground for the ballad "Darn That Dream," this time producing a more ethereal sound than one expects from him. It suited the melancholy nature of the tune and set the stage for DeFrancesco's solo, his right hand crafting long strands of melody.
As DeFrancesco followers know, he has been turning to trumpet with increasing regularity, and his playing on his secondary instrument deepens each time he returns. Yes, his balladry evoked Miles Davis of the 1950s, especially when he used Harmon mute, but ultimately DeFrancesco's trumpet work was less about the instrument and more about the music.
The organist closed his set with a buoyant blues and an original, "Home for the Holidays," which happens to be the title track of his newest release, a double CD. The tune may not be the most sophisticated in the organist's repertoire, but it conveyed high spirits and good cheer, which was precisely the point.