The first record I ever picked up by Dr. Lonnie Smith (although he hadn’t yet added the honorary Dr. to his name) was Live at Club Mozambique.
Recorded at a small Detroit venue in 1970, it features the pioneering Hammond B3 player crushing six originals and a pair of covers. Blue Note Records initially shelved the album, but unearthed it in 1995 as part of their “Rare Groove” series.
I loved it immediately.
Smith and his more-than-able jazz septet punctuate the classic LP with funk, soul, and boogaloo, while club patrons’ soft chatter and Smith’s own audible mumble give it an undeniable energy. Its eight songs left an indelible impression on me, and fair or not, I knew I’d have high expectations if ever given a chance to see the good doctor play.
I finally got it on Thursday night when ArtPower! hosted the Dr. Lonnie Smith Trio at UCSD’s Loft.
Dressed in black (from turban to toe), Smith took the stage shortly after 8 p.m.. Backed by guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg and drummer Jonathan Blake, the trio was all business. Smith didn’t even address the sold-out crowd until four songs in when he quipped, “We have all these songs up front and you can pick them up if you care for it. And if you don’t - don’t worry about it. I got your back.”
Other than jokingly telling the crowd later that the title was “Fitty, not 50” Ways To Leave Your Lover, Smith’s trio let the music do the talking. And it sure had a lot to say.
While Thursday’s set mostly included songs Smith has written/recorded in the last decade or so, the overall vibe of the night paralleled the one on Mozambique – a lovely mixture of spacey, avant-garde atmospherics, rollicking boogaloo jams, select quiet numbers and soul-infused jazz excursions.
A wide smile broke through Smith’s trademark ivory beard for most of the night, as he conjured the music with his hands – both when he put them on the keys and when he gestured above them, seemingly pulling the music down out of the air.
On the up-tempo hip-shake of inappropriately titled “Mellow Mood,” or the hypnotically slow pacing of “Frame For The Blues,” Smith’s trio never missed a beat and blended the divergent selections seamlessly.
Kreisberg’s impeccable guitar work was something to witness and made me completely forget Smith’s longtime collaborator, George Benson. Blake’s syncopated rhythms held down the bottom with authority, and during the drummer’s solo, Smith left the organ and stood at the back of the stage to let it really sink in.
Despite the presence of dinner service, the capacity crowd was both respectful and appreciative, keeping all noise to a minimum and rewarding the band’s stellar set with energetic applause.
Smith and the boys delivered an amazing performance on Thursday night, and for me, it exceeded the longtime expectations I had been holding on to for nearly 20 years.