Joey DeFrancesco (1971-2022). A tribute by Pete Whittaker

Jazz organist Pete Whittaker (*) pays tribute to Joey DeFrancesco:

Joey DeFrancesco in Ystad, Sweden in 2019. Photo © Tim Dickeson

Pete Whittaker writes:

The jazz community is having to come to terms with the awful news that Joey DeFrancesco has died at the height of his powers aged just 51. I’ve been asked to write a few words as a brief primer for those who may not be familiar with this phenomenal master of the jazz Hammond organ. Also, as an organ player myself, what I appreciated about him.

Anybody who knows anything about Joey will acknowledge that his mastery of the Hammond organ was without parallel. I don’t just mean in terms of his seemingly effortless technical prowess but also in the way that he absorbed and re-assimilated the musical language of the jazz organ pioneers of the 50s and 60s whom he obviously held in the highest regard.

Until the (still teenaged) Joey came along in the late 1980s, the organ had fallen out of favour in jazz circles, despite the fact that most of its pioneers were still alive and gigging. The introduction of this wunderkind helped rekindle interest in the older guys, who took Joey under their wing. Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff et al. recognised his youthful talent and were all supportive. No doubt encouraged at first by his father “Papa” John DeFrancesco (also an organist) Joey seemed to be born to the cause. Joey just soaked up all of the knowledge – for instance, the hybrid left hand/left foot bass technique developed by Jimmy Smith, and the right-hand chord voicings which resemble those of a guitar player more than a pianist.

This isn’t to say that Joey D was a mere facsimile of the past masters. Although the tradition was always evident, and although he will not necessarily be remembered as a revolutionary or innovator, he absolutely nailed the spirit of the music, and drew the various strands together to a degree that no other organist has ever done. It was as if the dynamic, explosive soul of Jimmy Smith was combined with the vital grooving pulse of Richard “Groove” Holmes and Jack McDuff, while incorporating the bop lines of Don Patterson and the modal adventures of Larry Young, and the hip swing of Jimmy McGriff. All in one musical personality! That is spooky chemistry. The fact that he was also adept on the trumpet and latterly tenor sax is almost by-the-by. On a gig he might well sing a ballad, accompanying himself on organ, then take a trumpet solo keeping the bass line with his left foot and comping chords on the organ with his left hand.

Joey possessed the essence of what hard-bop, post-bop, soul-jazz Hammond organ has become. To hear him play live was a truly transcendental experience. In equal measures edifying, inspiring and terrifying. Edifying in the breadth and depth of the musical spectacle – inspiring by means of showing what could be done by one person at the Hammond organ console – terrifying because every time I heard him I knew I’d never scratch the surface of what is possible compared to this guy. But before this piece becomes a cry for help (!), suffice it to say that in Joey we hear impeccable time, dynamics and swing along with maximum excitement. Basically the holy grail qualities for any would-be jazz organist.

Recommended: a 2013 Interview with Pete Fallico

One important source to hear what Joey had to say about things is an episode of Pete Fallico’s excellent “Doodlin’ Lounge” show on KCSM-FM. Doodlin’ Lounge is Pete’s weekly show where he focuses on a particular jazz artist (with a distinct jazz organ bias) and interviews either them, or people who remember them, interspersed with tracks by the artist in question. This archived episode from 2013 is one of the many times that Mr. Fallico interviewed Joey, who had recently recorded his “One For Rudy” CD at Van Gelder’s studio. In past episodes, Joey has guested to discuss the various jazz organ pioneers. (Periodically, older shows are rebroadcast so it’s well worth subscribing to the podcast.)

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LINK: Joey DeFrancesco interviewed on “Doodlin Lounge”


Joey’s biographical details can be found in several of the online tributes and obituaries that have appeared in the last few days. Here are a few of the obits:

Facebook tributes from fellow organists

Seven Favourites from Joey’s extensive back catalogue…

Project Freedom behind the scenes

A short promo of phone footage taken in the studio includes comments from the band (Troy Roberts, Dan Wilson and Jason Brown).

I love this album and saw the band at Ronnie’s. In my opinion this lineup was Joey’s most vibrant band. The interplay between the band members was astonishing.

Project Freedom CD (2017)

This is the title track written by Joey. Everything is showcased here – soulful lines, textures, band interplay, dynamics etc. When it arrives, the dazzling minor theme is the very definition of swinging propulsion. I get thrown by the sneaky 2/4 bar in the tag every time though!

With Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra (there’s a 14-minute gap at the beginning to fast forward through!)

Joey joins JALCO to play Duke Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. It’s just amazing. There’s part 2 of the concert in a separate video too in which they tackle the Oliver Nelson/Jimmy Smith interpretation of Peter and the Wolf.

One Hundred Ways – Trio

Joey playing a live and utterly funky version of James Ingram’s hit One Hundred Ways. Again the trio with Jason Brown (drums) and Dan Wilson (guitar). Unbelievable performance. I love the false ending and the extended cadenza leading into a Jimmy McGriff-style gospel vamp.

The Good Life from the CD “Incredible” (1999)

Here’s an example of Joey taking an idea and running with it. Back in the 1960s, the organist Don Patterson (who had a strong working partnership with Sonny Stitt) recorded a version of this Sacha Distel tune which Joey pays close homage to. There’s a Doodlin’ Lounge episode (see above) that I hope gets a re-airing before long in which Joey talks at some length about Don Patterson.

Joey DeFrancesco featuring Joe Doggs – Falling In Love Again

Link to tracks from the album on YouTube

I love this CD – Joe Doggs is actually the mafia-movie actor Joe Pesci, who sings a little like Jimmy Scott. Joey enjoyed wearing his Italian heritage on his sleeve. He also made a tongue-in-cheek album in faux-mafia guise, “Goodfellas” (1999), which playfully renders themes from the movies along with Monk’s “Evidence”.

Live (solo) at NAMM 2020

Ignore the cheesy Youtube channel ident (that’s not Joey!)… This is an off-the-cuff-warts-and-all performance at the stand for Viscount organs at the Namm 2020 music trade fair in California. Joey helped develop the current lineup of the Italian manufacturer’s digital Hammond “clones”. With Troy Roberts and Jeff Hamilton. A masterclass in how to be deadly serious about being relaxed!

(*) Originally from Wolverhampton, Pete Whittaker is a jazz organist based in London. Starting on piano, he migrated to organ after hearing the classic 1950s & 60s jazz organ records. He is currently involved in projects with some of the UK’s leading musicians. These include a trio with Art Themen and George Double, Theo Travis’ Double Talk, The Filthy Six, John Etheridge’s Blue Spirits, Tony Kofi and the Organisation and others. Pete is married to the jazz pianist Kate Williams.

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