Blue Notes

Joey D and Van the Man Come Together in a Jazz/Blues Summit

Smoke 'em if ya got 'em: Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco
Smoke 'em if ya got 'em: Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco Photo by Richard Wade/Courtesy of Legacy Recordings
Sometimes, a musical collaboration between two artists making a record together involves years of planning, fraught prior negotiations, and in-studio conflict. And sometimes…not.

The latter seems to have been the case for multi-faceted classic rocker Van Morrison and Joey DeFrancesco, contemporary master of the Hammond B-3 organ. The pair’s new record, You’re Driving Me Crazy (Exile/Legacy) features 15 tracks that cover jazz and blues standards (“Miss Otis Regrets,” “The Things I Used to Do,” “Everyday I Have the Blues”) along with a few tunes from Morrison’s own catalog (“Have I Told You Lately,” “Magic Time,” “Close Enough for Jazz”).

click to enlarge COVER BY EXLIE/LEGACY
Cover by Exlie/Legacy
“I met Van briefly a couple of times, and then his management contacted my management about working together, and that sounded cool,” DeFrancesco says. “We picked the songs together, but it was his call. There were some songs we knew about at the beginning, but then when we got in the studio, we just started calling tunes. And we did ten tracks the first day and five the next.”

DeFrancesco got a co-producer credit, and they used his regular band of Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums), and Troy Roberts (sax). Morrison added some of his own sax playing, and DeFrancesco his second instrument, trumpet. What the listener will hear, according to the organist, is mostly first takes.

Of course, phrases like “great to work with,” “friendly and accommodating,” and “calm and collaborative” are not often used in written descriptions of Morrison over the decades. Words like “prickly,” “controlling,” and “aloof” are often among more kind terms. However, his collaborator here says nothing could be further from the truth, based on his first-hand experience.

“It was great. Van definitely has a certain direction he wants to go in, but he’s also very open, and a real music lover,” DeFrancesco says. “Once he was comfortable with the situation and everything was flowing, it went smooth. It was very easy, and he’s open to suggestions.”

Morrison has long showcased his love of jazz, putting in jazz harmonies, melodies, and sophistication even among his biggest “rock” records like Astral Weeks, Moondance, Tupelo Honey, and St. Dominic’s Preview.

As for DeFrancesco, his career in jazz is fairly storied by this point. He’s usually credited with spearheading a revival of interest in the Hammond B-3 organ that counts Jimmy Smith, Brother Jack McDuff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, and Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith as its masters. He signed his first record deal at the age of 16, and in addition to his own solo career, DeFrancesco has played with the likes of Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Bette Midler, and Jimmy Smith himself. He also hosts Organized, a weekly program on SiriusXM radio dedicated to playing the music made on his favorite instrument.

The story of the electric organ invention of Laurens Hammond and John Hanert (with the B-3 model in production from 1954-74) is fascinating on its own. The B-3’s distinctive sound was originally aimed toward churches who could not afford large pipe organs for services. But soon jazz, funk, and even rock musicians like Gregg Allman and Steve Winwood took a big liking to the instrument.

And while there have been attempts to make similar sounding organs (some under the “Hammond” moniker) and recreate the sound with transistor and digital efforts, the tonewheel-based organs in the original production run are the most sought after.

“The ones made from 1963 through 1973 were really the best ones. I know a lot of people associate the organ with church, but that’s changing,” DeFrancesco offers. “But it’s interesting to me that a lot of people will still say ‘Hammond’ organ in a way they wouldn’t [notate] the manufacturers of other instruments. There are actually a lot of instruments that have the B-3 sound, and a lot of people are saying let’s just call it an organ going forward.”

He also notes that playing the organ has unexpectedly helped him with his trumpet breathing work, as he often exhales when his hands are on the keys and inhaling when he takes them off.

In conjunction with the record release, AXS TV has been showing a full concert that the group did in front of a live audience at the San Francisco Jazz Center. But for those in the U.S. who would like to see the show, you’re out of luck. DeFrancesco notes they’ve played three shows in England with three more planned in Ireland, and that’s all that’s on the books for the Van Morrison collaboration.

But Joey DeFrancesco says he’s very excited about an upcoming project. Very. He’s just…well…being tight-lipped at the moment.

“I can’t talk about it yet, but I’m working on a project that will be very, very cool. And sooner than later, it will be announced,” he says slyly. “It’s going to be a big surprise!”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero