For his 75th birthday, Hammond B3 organ guru Dr. Lonnie Smith celebrated doing what he loves most. He performed at the Jazz Standard nightclub in New York with his musical “brothers,” guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Johnathan Blake. The live set of covers and Smith’s original compositions are featured on All in My Mind, Smith’s newest album and his second after returning to Blue Note Records in 2015.
Smith first broke into the New York soul jazz scene alongside George Benson in the 1960s. He has worked with big names — from Dizzy Gillespie to Santana — ever since, and has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles and the Eurythmics to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane and Beck. In 2017, he was awarded the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) Jazz Masters Award, one of the highest honors in jazz.
Revue talked with Smith about creating All in My Mind ahead of his performance in Holland this month.
You reworked your original song All in My Mind for your new record that shares the same title. Why did you return to this song?
I first recorded the song All in My Mind with George Benson in the 1970s. The new recording does sound different, but I think the lyrics I wrote at the time still work for today’s times. It’s the same thing over and over again, really. Some people won’t let it be.
You also sing on the new recording…
I have to tell you, it was recorded live, right? When I sung in that moment, I wanted to do it differently, a little bit better. But the way people do recordings today, they make changes over and over in the studio. They spend so much time making a Frankenstein, trying to make it sound perfect. But life isn’t like that. You adjust to life. So for the recording, I thought, ‘That’s what it was.’
Can you talk about working with Blue Note producer Don Was on this record and on Evolution? In the promotional materials for this record, you said he puts trust in your creativity.
I never really left Blue Note. Blue Note is in my heart. I really like the way (Don) does things because he knows music itself. He is fully engaged in what’s happening in the studio, and he knows what he’s doing. And he really wants you to be you. That really works for me.
You often bring young people into your performances, like your current trio members and Alicia Olatuja, who sings on All in My Mind.
The babies? (Laughs)
Yeah! But you also work with people of all ages and backgrounds. Do you think the type of music you play brings people together in this way?
In the moment, it’s beautiful. When you get young people to play your music, it makes you feel good because they get it. They don’t lose a beat, and they infuse their sense of playing into the music, too. That works for me, because I want them to be themselves. Sometimes, a young person might want to sound the same as somebody else, but music doesn’t work that way. If you make a mistake, I want that mistake. It’s about feeling in the moment more so than anything. If they bring their feeling in with mine, then it works.
Right. Everyone has something to say.
Yep! Nothing hurts you more than sticking to all the rules.
Your style of playing is very deliberate, almost understated, with lots of space. Why take that approach?
Here’s the thing. You don’t want to fill up every second. It’s like when you overdo it when you’re cooking — putting in too much salt or sugar. Making music is the same thing. You gotta let the music breathe, because music plays itself.
How did it feel to be named a NEA Jazz Master in 2017?
That was incredible, a big one. I was shocked myself, and very pleased to be recognized with all the other greats. It makes you feel good that someone listened. I play for the passion — it’s not for the money or for fame. I just love to play music, and when you’re touching people, there’s nothing like it. It feels like electricity, and it takes you different places in that moment. When you’re a musician, people work hard so they can come to your concert and feel happy, and you want to create that moment for them. That’s what it’s all about.
Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio
Jack Miller Theater Concert Hall
221 Columbia Ave., Holland
March 9, 7:30 p.m., $22
hope.edu/gps, (616) 395-7890