CD review

Joey DeFrancesco – In the Key of the Universe

Joey DeFrancesco – In the Key of the Universe
(Mack Avenue 1147. CD Review by Peter Jones)

Playing in a band with Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones at age 10, awarded a recording contract with Columbia at 16, on tour with Miles Davis a year later… well, you get the picture. Joey DeFrancesco, a master of the jazz organ, had pretty much done it all before he hit his 20s. This album is his 38th, and he still hasn’t reached his half-century.

But enough with the stats. It’s worth saying at the outset that In the Key of the Universe is a terrific record, one that has barely been off my turntable since it arrived. I did wonder at first whether both the album and the song titles were tongue-in-cheek – an extended parody, perhaps, of the rather vacuous and grandiose language sometimes used in jazz to suggest a spiritual quest (we can all think of examples). The cosmic sleeve artwork, with its retro-’80s typography, tends to reinforce the suspicion. The title track, a mid-tempo blues, starts with a gong, and Vibrations in Blue, a faster blues in 5/4, even has a sort of sitar drone running through the middle. And yet… who cares? The music on here is all that matters – and it’s outrageously hip and enjoyable from start to finish.

On this occasion, DeFrancesco is teamed with Pharoah Sanders (who appears on three tracks), and Troy Roberts on saxophones, Billy Hart on drums and Sammy Figueroa on percussion. As a unit, they swing like the clappers, aided by the leader’s pleasing lightness of touch at the organ’s bass end, and of course by his compositional inspiration. Awake and Blissed and It Swung Wide Open are two examples of the band’s effortless playing of fast bebop lines while still sounding relaxed and in the groove. Sanders’s The Creator Has A Master Plan – perhaps his best-known tune – is given a lovely 11-minute rendition, its 78-year-old author adding a brief vocal contribution, while Troy Roberts switches respectfully to acoustic bass.

Like Nicholas Payton, DeFrancesco is as gifted on trumpet as he is on keyboards, and this is evident on the spacey, latin-tinged And So It Is, on which Roberts again plays bass. This is followed by the sweet, mellow Soul Perspective and the melting ballad A Path Through The Noise. This joyful, uplifting album ends with the bossa Easier To Be, a classic trumpet/tenor pairing. We’ll see what the rest of the year brings, but for now In the Key of the Universe may be the most satisfying release of 2019.

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