Joey DeFrancesco has always brought his family’s funky lineage, soul and innovation to the Hammond organ, arguably jazz’s most ignored solo instrument.
This year, however, DeFrancesco happens to be pushing freedom and spirituality along for the rhythmic ride. The one time Miles Davis band member spent 2018 in the company of Van Morrison with bluesy albums “The Prophet Speaks” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” to their collective credits.
After a Christmas gig at South where DeFrancesco played a heartwarming handful of seasonal classics, the organist found his groovy inner-vision focused on cosmically free and holy jazz with 2019 offering, “In the Key of the Universe.” Now, DeFrancesco is bringing that elegant openness and spirituality together with his unique brand of organ pumping, indigenous to the Philly R&B-jazz organ trio sound. The Kimmel Center will host him on June 1 with the Jazz Orchestra of Philadelphia for a big band mash-up.
We caught up with both DeFrancesco and his wife/manager, Gloria, before they made the trek back east.
The notion of being a prodigy, something you were considered when you began playing the organ at age 3, was that ever a difficult expectation to meet?
No. Or I never thought about it. I was grateful for positive reinforcement, but I just played. I loved to play, and work on playing. I did what I had to do.
Whether you look at your family (grandfather Joseph DeFrancesco was a reedman, "Papa" John was the organist dad that gave Joey his first look at the organ) or mentors you played with such as Miles, how has their influence evolved as you evolve?
Growing up surrounded by music was a great situation. Who knows if I had grown up in a different family if I would have the same interests.
Or same talents.
Exactly. A lot of people grow up around it, don’t latch onto music and don’t play [an instrument]. My dad was an organist with an organ in the house and a ton of jazz records. He got me set up, and guided me in all the right directions. He wasn’t teaching me every day. He let me do my thing, and let me enjoy the organ. It became my favorite toy. When I toured and recorded with Miles when I was 17, that influence was tremendous, but there were things about it, musically, that I didn’t realize until later because I was so young. Growing up in Philadelphia, too, at the time I did, was a big deal. There were a lot of great old musicians still around, playing. The clubs, too. All that continues to be an influence – you just don’t always realize it at that moment.
Is there anything non-musical about Philly that stayed an influence?
The city’s vibe. That just happens. The sound of the street. Watching people. There’s always been a lot going on in Philly. That’ll never leave me.
How, when and why did you hook up with Van Morrison?
In 2017, his manager contacted Gloria and asked if I’d like to record with Van, after [he saw] me play at Ronnie Scott’s in London. A few years before that, we opened for him in the Cork Island Jazz Festival. His manager’s email was out of the blue. We flew over, talked about music and he let me run with it all with my own group. He’s smart like that. He knew I had a vibe, and figured with that together, he could come in and do his thing on top.
Are those all one take recordings?
Yeah, he sang live with us. No overdubbing, save for my trumpet playing. The star of it all wasn’t easy. He goes through his motions, whatever his rituals… but, once everything gelled, it gelled. We hit it off personally. He’s an R&B guy but loves Coltrane. He wanted to make a going-in-a-club in the 60s R&B record.
That’s not what you’re doing in your current situation.
Not at all. But I can go there anytime I want. That’s a permanent part of me. And that’s where he wanted to go. He called the one album we did together ‘You’re Driving Me Crazy’ – as much my record in his opinion as it was his – because he was having that good of a time hanging with us.
Your current direction happens to be freer, open and more spiritual than any album in your catalog. You’ve always been free and pushed the boundaries. But this new album is out, and not a sound you’re always associated with. When did the music of the universe make itself available to you?
I’ve always been stretching the boundaries of the instrument since day one. I have my influences, but nobody’s played the organ the way I play it. And I say that very humbly, good or bad. The natural progression of how we mature, and the cultures and belief systems we witness… I have been moving toward that spiritual direction in music and life. One is not separate from the other. When it comes to free jazz, I love Coltrane’s free period, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders [he plays with DeFrancesco on Universe]. The thing with these gentlemen, they can play ‘free’ because they had tradition. They understood everything else. There's blues in their playing. They know harmony. Free to me means doing whatever you want because you have the ability to do anything you want – free to groove, free to be out. Understanding the spirituality that goes with going out… it doesn’t even matter what you believe. It’s a spiritual vibe that, no pun intended, comes with being in tune with the universe. Being aware, enlightened. Having gratitude. I had to be ready for this album.