Joey DeFrancesco, In The Key Of The Universe

Written by | Magazine, Summer 2019

Recently organist Joey DeFrancesco released his latest album on Mack Avenue titled “In The Key Of The Universe”. With this album, Joey takes a spiritual approach to the music building on the direction that first began to appear on his last album “Project Freedom”. With inspiration drawn from the landmark Pharoah Sanders album “Karma”, released almost exactly 50 years earlier, Sanders makes three guest appearances on the album, including a version of his best-known track from Karma “The Creator Has A Master Plan”. Playing the drums on that track was the great Billy Hart, who reunites with Sanders as well as DeFrancesco, with whom he’s worked several times over the years. Recently I had the great pleasure of spending some time with Joey to speak about the album and a great deal more.

Editors Note: This article is an abridged version of the article that appears in the Summer 2019 edition of the Jazz In Europe Magazine. The Magazine is available here. 

Originally hailing from Philadelphia Joey DeFrancesco has become one of the best-known jazz organists on the scene today and a torchbearer for the City of Brotherly Love’s long-standing tradition with the instrument. The son of “Papa” John DeFrancesco, (an organist himself) in the 1980’s Joey was credited with spearheading the resurgence of the instrument after a decade of hibernation in the mid-1970s and early 1980s.

Not only known for its dubious gastronomic delights such as Hoagies and Cheesesteaks, In the 1950s through to the mid-1970s Philadelphia was also known as the Jazz Organ Capital of the World. This title was well deserved having spawned such greats as Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Bill Doggett, Don Patterson and the “Queen of the Organ” Shirley Scott.

Joey DeFrancesco in 1982 at the age of 11 with Johnny Williams and Louis Taylor at Jewel’s jazz club in Philadelphia

In the early 1980s, while still a young boy, Joey’s father would take him to gigs often encouraging him to sit in with the house bands. Joey recalls “there were several clubs in town that catered strictly for organ trios and one of these was a club called “Gert’s Lounge” on South Street. When the club first opened up it had Shirley Scott as the house organist and Johnny Williams on drums and they would invite different Sax players to come along and play. One night my dad took me down there to sit in, I was around 10, and at that time Don Patterson was playing the organ and Philly Joe Jones was on drums. Well, I sat in and they liked my playing, they enjoyed it and accepted me. The next thing I knew was that Don Patterson asked me if I could fill in for him for the rest of the summer, it was amazing, I was just a kid and still going to school. Well as it turned out, that summer the band was Philly Joe Jones on drums and Hank Mobley on sax.” This gig ended up lasting far longer than just that summer with Joey seen regularly on the bandstand on weekends so as not to interrupt school.

I felt rather amazed when Joey told me this, after all, there are not that many kids of that age that are given the opportunity in effect to learn their craft directly from the tradition. With my curiosity peaked I was interested in knowing what kind of impact this had on a kid of 10. Joey explained “Well, the thing is I started playing when I was 4 years old so by the time I played with those cats I’d already been playing six or seven years. I used to play for hours and hours at home, practicing, playing with albums and when my dad was playing and he played a lot, I was watching what he was doing. He was always gigging so I had the opportunity to sit in there right away. I still remember the first time I did that, I was 6 years old. So I guess by the time the gigs at Gert’s came along, I already had the chops, but I really learned a lot on that gig”.

During his career Joey has notched up a long list of credits both as a sideman and a leader that reads like a compendium of jazz in the late 20th century however the next major milestone in his career came while still in his teens, touring with the Miles Davis Band. I asked Joey how the opportunity came about. “Well it’s sort of a long story but Miles was doing an interview on a local TV station in Philly, It was a morning show called Time Out. Well seeing they were having Miles on the show the producers thought it would be good to have some live music for in between the commercial breaks. So they thought it would be a good idea to have some students from the High School I went to play. The band was me on organ, Christian McBride on bass and a drummer called Stacy Dozier. They also thought it would be a good idea to have four young local trumpet players to come along and play and have Miles critique them! – If you watch the interview (Ed: you can view the video here on the Bill Boggs TV YouTube channel) you’ll see that didn’t go all the well.”

One of the trumpet players was John Swana, When he came up he asked me to play a chorus for an intro and after we played Miles interrupted the interview and asked “Who’s your organ player”, well I was a nervous wreck, here I am on live television in my home town and I had no idea what Miles was going to say next! I’m thinking is he going to tear me apart on TV in front of all these people that know me? – anyway, believe it or not, he dug it. He asked for my number but I didn’t hear from him until the summer of the next year, 1988, I still can’t believe that chorus got me a gig with Miles.”

 

As our time progressed we moved back to speaking about the new album “In The Key Of The Universe”. As I mentioned in the intro, this album has a strong metaphysical spiritual aspect to it as is eluded to in the title. I asked Joey to tell us a little about the back story of how this album came about. “I’d been listening  a lot to Pharoah Sanders’s album “Kama’ from 1969. When listening to the track “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and how free that is and how beautiful the groove is at the same time I really wanted to do something that pays tribute to that album.” Pharoah and I had been talking about doing something together for some time, I remember he sat in with my band back in 2004 and since then we’d been in constant communication, but until now it was just never able to come together. This time everything just lined up.

“Once we had this recording locked in my wife and manager Gloria, who also co-produced the album with me thought it made sense to get Billy Hart to play drums. Billy and I had worked together before and seeing he was on the original Kama album it all made perfect sense.”

When speaking of the music on the album and his approach to it Joey said. “Well the album takes a far more spiritual approach to the music, It’s freer, still with forms and chord changes but freer on top of that. My last album made a start in this direction and without getting too heavy, as I grow as a person, this is the way my life is changing, everything I do in my life gets reflected in my music and my music speaks for me.

 

There’s no doubt that “In The Key Of The Universe” is a document to Joey DeFrancesco’s artistry as a musician, however in speaking with Joey I’ve learned that it’s far more personal than that, this album is clearly a statement.

Joey DeFrancesco’s “In The Key Of The Universe” is now available on Mack Avenue Records. You can find more information as well as purchase and streaming links here on the Mack Avenue Website.

More information and the tour dates can be found at Joey’s artist website.

Last modified: August 2, 2019