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Trio Capitalizes on Organist Transplant


A few months back, organist Joey DeFrancesco wandered into Fullerton's Steamers Cafe to hear keyboardist Bill Cunliffe's organ trio with drummer Jeff Hamilton. At one point, DeFrancesco, who had previously performed at the club with his trio, was coaxed from the crowd to sit in with Hamilton. That spontaneous session went so well that Hamilton and DeFrancesco resolved to work together again.

The results of that resolution were on display this weekend at Steamers as DeFrancesco and Hamilton combined with guitarist Ron Eschete for three nights of organ trio fireworks. This was more than a match made in heaven.

DeFrancesco, at 29, is in the vanguard of the organ trio revival and a virtual compendium of Hammond B-3 organ history. Hamilton the co-leader of the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and leader of a noted piano trio is a driving force no matter whom he is playing with. In the sometimes unpredictable world of jazz chemistry, their coming together made for often explosive musical moments.

On Sunday, the last night of their three-night stand, Eschete, Hamilton and DeFrancesco were as comfortable together as old friends sharing inside jokes. A typical piece would start with the organist wandering through an introduction to a not-yet-identifiable tune, a process often referred to as "noodling."

While the term can hold negative connotations, DeFrancesco's noodles were more homemade pasta than packaged spaghetti, moving easily through teases, taunts and references to other tunes before a groove developed and a melody began to boil. From there, drums and guitar took up the beat and suddenly "Close Your Eyes" or "Bye Bye Blackbird" or another of the half-dozen standards aired during the first set bubbled into recognition.

DeFrancesco toyed with each theme, not hiding it but dressing it up to his liking. These short-lived melodies gave way to exuberant soloing as the organist capitalized on the whine and grind of his low-tech instrument (you could see the pulsing glow of vacuum tubes in the base of the instrument's cabinet speaker) piling on thick chords, funky phrases and single note runs that sizzled like a splash of water on a hot frying pan.

His bass, played on the organ's foot pedals, seemed to anticipate chord changes and came with the same propulsive effect as Hamilton's drumming. With eyes closed, it was hard to believe the same man was playing bass and lead.

The rhythm-and-blues roots of organ trio music were readily apparent here and played with the kind of contemporary virtuosity that made the breakthrough skills of Jimmy Smith, Larry Young and others seem commonplace (they were not). Quotes from other songs came faster than quips at a comics' convention. During one number, DeFrancesco even launched into Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," not the usual jazz reference.

But what gave this evening exceptional magic was the interplay among the three musicians. Not only did Hamilton push the music with his characteristic drive, he punctuated DeFrancesco's antics with clever snare, tom-tom and cymbal combinations. Eschete's racing pulse and bluesy accents spurred the organist to even greater heights. As he soloed, Hamilton picked up the pace even more, making dense rhythmic statements that never lost sight of their baseline beats.

As is often the case with the party-time feel of organ trio music, there were plenty of high jinks throughout the set. At one point, a burning, repeated figure from the organist's right hand seemed to be stuck in its repetitions and DeFrancesco pounded the top of his instrument with his fist as if to break it loose. After cruising through "Mack the Knife," DeFrancesco sang a couple of verses with a minimum of pretense in a way that didn't threaten Bobby Darin's reputation.

The overall effect was one of spontaneity, in performance and in the manner these dates, as if by fortunate circumstance, came about. Cheers to Steamers' owner Terence Love for encouraging this collaboration of musicians who so obviously were meant for each other.


Drummer Jeff Hamilton returns to Steamers with his trio May 12-13. 138 W. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton. Call: (714) 871-8800.

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