|Dr. Lonnie Smith always creates a groove with the pace of his swing and the depth of his sound. Recognized internationally as one of the premier keyboard players in the history of jazz, Smith combines his passion for the music with his intuitive intelligence and gives listeners an unforgettable musical experience.
The title of his debut on Palmetto Records, Too Damn Hot!, may serve as a caution for listeners to get ready for that groove. Featuring eight original compositions, Smith opens the CD with the down-home, second-line beat of “Norleans,” featuring Greg Hutchinson on drums. “Too Damn Hot” follows, with Rodney Jones adding to the groove on guitar and this time, Fukushi Tainaka on drums. “Back Track” hits a soul/groove stride before Smith heads into “The Whip,” which stirs things up with the help of Peter Bernstein’s guitar work. Smith slows things down on Horace Silver’s beautiful ballad, “Silver Serenade.” “Track 9” gathers the steam of a moving train while “One Cylinder” maintains a steady rhythm. Smith offers a second cover, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” (Churchill & Morey) before moving into the taunting melody of “Your Mama’s Got A Complex,” reminding fans that Smith began his career on vocals. He ends the disc with the church-like zeal of “Evil Turn.”
This recording joins more than 30 others that Smith has released as a leader throughout his almost 40-year career. During that impressive span, Smith has performed with jazz greats such as Lee Morgan; Dizzy Gillespie; Grover Washington, Jr.; Ron Carter; Lou Donaldson; Jimmy McGriff; Frank Foster; Joe Lovano; and David “Fathead” Newman (a frequent collaborator). Known for his versatility, Smith also has played with soul/R&B/pop artists Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Etta James, Esther Phillips, The Impressions and The Coasters and many others.
Dr. Lonnie Smith has been a leading force on the jazz scene ever since critics for Downbeat Magazine selected him as Top Organist in 1969. Born in Buffalo, New York, Smith was raised in a musical family that had its own singing group and radio show. His mother was a major influence and introduced him to gospel, classical and jazz. Smith went on to sing in several groups including his vocal group known as The Supremes (formed and named before Diana Ross and The Supremes) and The Teen Kings before being given a Hammond B-3 organ by a local music store owner (Art Kubera), who took pity on the kid who sat in his store all day looking longingly at the instruments. Smith had earlier played the trumpet but quickly took to the organ, teaching himself how to play it by listening to records by Jimmy Smith and Bill Doggett and paying extra attention in church.
Reflecting back on that time, Smith explains:
“Even though I didn’t know how, I was able to play right from the beginning. I learned how to work the stops and that was it. It’s a passion for me, so everything else came naturally. It is a difficult instrument to play though, because you have two keyboards and the bass pedal, so you are the orchestra. You have so much to do but you don’t want to get in anybody’s way. Just because you have muscle doesn’t mean you have to show it off.”
Smith began playing at Buffalo’s hot club, The Pine Grill, whenever he got a chance and soon came to the attention of musicians Jack McDuff, Lou Donaldson, George Benson and the agent Jimmy Boyd, who asked Smith to record with Grant Green. Smith declined insisting he wasn’t ready, yet soon after that, he moved to New York City and began playing regularly in George Benson’s Quartet. His reputation grew through his work with Benson, and eventually Smith went on to make his first leader recording on Columbia. Work with Lou Donaldson followed including the seminal recording, “Alligator Boogaloo,” which began Smith’s association with Blue Note Records.
Smith recorded alongside Randy Brecker, John Abercrombie, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Ronnie Cuber, Joey DeFrancesco, Kenny Garrett, Lenny White, Reuben Wilson and others, doing everything from tribute albums to Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane to jazz, bop, funk and acid-jazz recordings. That breadth of style and talent is exactly why Dr. Lonnie Smith is always in demand.
In fact, from his early days with Benson to present day performances and recordings, his brilliant ability to “doctor” the music – to bring out its essence and perfect the groove – was what earned Smith the “Dr.” moniker from his fellow musicians. This also contributes to his being selected by Downbeat Magazine’s Critics Poll each year as one of the best in his field and why the Jazz Journalists Association recently voted Smith Best Keyboardist/Organists for the second consecutive year.
Smith’s vibrant energy infuses his music and his audience with the joy that he has always found in creating and performing. He continues to tour throughout Europe and the Far East, a region of the world he takes some of his inspiration from. Currently he is featured on separate tours with Lou Donaldson, Mark Whitfield, The Organ Summit and Crash, a young Canadian sextet.