By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — The SFJAZZ Center will host a celebration of the Hammond B-3 organ this weekend, spotlighting such virtuoso keyboard talents as Joey DeFrancesco, Ronnie Foster and Reuben Wilson over the course of a hard-grooving four-day festival.
Founded in 1983 as a two-day event that was originally called the Jazz in the City Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has established itself as a globally renowned institution presenting some of the world’s greatest jazz artists including such icons as pianist McCoy Tyner, singer Tony Bennett, and saxophone greats like Sonny Rollins and the late Ornette Coleman at a variety of venues across the city. During it’s history, the festival would regularly dedicate concerts to the gospel and soul-infused sounds of the Hammond, hosting such legendary figures as Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott and one particularly memorable outdoor block party on 11th Street with organ master Jimmy Smith.
This year, SFJAZZ brings a variety of veteran players and young upstarts on the organ as part of the 2018-2019 season. The B-3 Festival kicks off on Thursday night with a double-bill featuring Hammond luminary Joey DeFrancesco and his trio sharing the stage with local talent Tammy Hall. Born in 1971 to a musical family and the son of organ great “Papa” John DeFrancesco, the young prodigy was following in his father’s footsteps by taking up the organ at age four. A year later, he was playing note-for-note versions of Jimmy Smith’s songs and joining his father onstage at club appearances.
His meteoric rise would continue as the precocious player joined a Philadelphia-based band that included established jazz giants Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones, becoming a fixture at local jazz clubs at the tender age of 10. A contract with Columbia Records by the time he was 16 and a stint with iconic trumpet great Miles Davis got DeFrancesco’s career of to a great start, with Davis inspiring the musician to take up trumpet himself.
He was hailed for bringing the Hammond B-3 back to prominence during the ’80s and would later collaborate with notable players like guitarist and fellow Davis band alumnus John McLaughlin (in the guitarist’s Free Spirits band), mentors McDuff and Smith and monster drummers including Dennis Chambers and Billy Hart. More recently, DeFrancesco and his current trio featuring drummer Michael Ode and saxophonist Troy Roberts (the band he appears with on Thursday) backed legendary singer Van Morrison on his latest collection You’re Driving Me Crazy. Bay Area fixture Hall — who has established herself as a go-to pianist and organ player in San Francisco — opens the evening with her own group.
On Friday, veteran Hammond B-3 player and Bay Area resident Chester Thompson — a veteran musician who worked with Tower of Power for a decade prior to joining Santana — returns to SFJAZZ after triumphant June performances of his 1971 Black Jazz album Powerhouse for the SF Jazz Festival. Thompson appears with a quartet featuring Howard Wiley on tenor sax, guitarist Barry Finnerty (Miles Davis, the Brecker Brothers, the Crusaders) and drummer Darrell Green alongside special guest vocalist Mary Stallings and soul-jazz saxophonist Houston Person. Thompson is also appearing for a family matinee at Miner Auditorium at 11 a.m. Saturday morning.
That evening, rising keyboard phenom and former member of Snarky Puppy Cory Henry brings his band the Funk Apostles to the stage for two sets. Another child prodigy who honed his skills playing with his family church growing up in Brooklyn and played at the Apollo Theater at age six, Henry would make his mark as a member of saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s band before moving on to Snarky Puppy. His current group delivers a style of sanctified, gospel-tinged funk and soul on its latest effort, Art of Love. Saxophonist Wiley and his band Extra Nappy, a group that features gifted drummer Thomas Pridgen (formerly with the Mars Volta and Suicidal Tendencies) also performs.
On Sunday, the B-3 Celebration comes to a close with a double bill of two Blue Note keyboard greats from the ’70s. Ronnie Foster brought a more contemporary jazz-funk sound to his landmark debut 1972 album Two Headed Freap, a record best known for the heavily sampled tune “Mystic Brew” that was first used on A Tribe Called Quest’s hit song “Electric Relaxation.” The keyboard player was also a regular collaborator with guitarist George Benson and played on Stevie Wonder’s groundbreaking double album Songs in the Key of Life.
Foster and his current trio will perform before a set from B-3 guru Reuben Wilson, who rose to prominence with his late ’60s soul-jazz classics like Love Bug and Blue Mode that included contributions from such greats as trumpet player Lee Morgan, saxophonist George Coleman and guitarists Grant Green and Melvin Sparks. After a fruitful stint on Blue Note, Wilson would go on to record a number of notable albums for the Groove Merchant label that would also become sought-after records by DJs during the “acid jazz” revival of the funky sound that started in the late ’80s. He remains active not only with his trio appearing Sunday, but as a member of Godfathers of the Groove, a band that also includes drumming legend Bernard “Pretty” Purdie and Grant Green, Jr. For more on the SFJAZZ B-3 Organ Festival and ticket information, please visit the SFJAZZ website.
SFJAZZ B-3 Organ Festival
Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 20-23, times and prices vary
Miner Auditorium at the SFJAZZ Center