Lost in Beck's Space with Dr. Smith

Fort Lauderdale organist Dr. Lonnie Smith takes on Beck tunes

Selling jazz albums in mass quantities usually involves some sort of trickery: Diana Krall's blue jeans, for instance.

Back in the late '60s and early '70s, a common ploy was to include a contemporary pop standard, reinterpreted instrumentally. Sometimes the end would transcend the means and the result would wind up a step or two above elevator music. Indeed, for every successful hybrid, there are a hundred uselessly quirky cocktail-jazz versions of "Norwegian Wood" or something.

Fort Lauderdale keyboardist Dr. Lonnie Smith took on a risky assignment when he agreed to tackle 11 songs from the back catalog of Beck. His Hammond-organ attack on the recently released Boogaloo to Beck is grimy enough that the soul-jazz effort can't be called too reverential to its source. By and large, he's sidestepped the too-studious approach that characterized jazz pianist Christopher O'Riley's recent tribute to Radiohead. The "if it ain't broke" maxim would seem applicable where Beck's music is concerned.

"Doin' those things can be tricky, pretty tricky, because they're already hits," the 60-year-old Smith says. "So when you do it, are you going to do it the same way, or are you gonna play it with your feelings?"

Smith's feelings seem ambiguous where Beck Hansen -- the chameleon-like singer-songwriter who went from a rascal playing leaf blowers on-stage to the captain of last year's melodramatic masterpiece Sea Change -- is concerned. In fact, Dr. Smith, whose honorary Ph.D. is "self-bestowed," was unfamiliar with Beck's material when he was asked to do Boogaloo. After his guitarist friend Doug Munro called and explained the project to Smith, the organ player was confused. "When he said Beck, immediately I thought about my friend Joe Beck," Smith admits. "Or Jeff Beck. I didn't know that he was talking about this young Beck. This was another Beck."

Munro told Smith not to worry. He'd arranged the songs to allow for a lot of slack -- "shootin' for a Blue Note feel," recalls Smith. "Yeah." That's borne out in the nostalgia of the album's pale blue/green cover and the one-take feel of the recordings. Instead of hammering the changes over and over again, the players (including Munro, legendary saxman David "Fathead" Newman, and drummer Lafrae Sci) knocked out the tunes fast.

"We didn't do too many takes on 'em at all," Smith reports. "That's what we used to do at Blue Note. We used to do an album, sometimes two, in one day. We didn't waste no time. If you winged it, fine. If you didn't wing it, shame on you."

With his distinctive Hammond licks subbing for Beck's voice on several songs, Boogaloo to Beckfeels like Smith's show. He transforms "Devil's Haircut" from rambunctious rock tune into a barroom shit-kicker. "Paper Tiger," which leads off the album, is changed from orchestral swoon to slow-burning honky tonk. Munro's sharp playing is dandy, spilling lyrical notes here and there, but Newman does the most damage to the songs. His solos (notably on "The New Pollution" and "Jack Ass") take the tunes too close to a supermarket PA system for comfort.

For the project, Munro recommended Sci, one of few women playing drums on the professional jazz circuit. "When we got to the studio, I was very surprised," Smith says, "because she sounded beautiful, she really did. And he sounded nice too, so we had a ball."

Actually, Smith has been hooking up with drummer Cindy Blackman, a local drummer who plays with Lenny Kravitz. "There aren't a lot of female drummers, no," Smith continues.

To be fair, Smith's South Florida musical past began decades ago at a hotel -- the Breakers in Palm Beach, to be exact. Friend Johnny "Spider" Martin lured him south from his home base of Buffalo, but Smith didn't stick around. Following a stint in New York, another friend, bassist Dave Workman, talked Smith into returning to the Sunshine State in 1990. By that time, O'Hara's on Las Olas was open, and Smith became a fixture there. Literally: "I'd set up in the window and play," he remembers.

"It started goin' over good," says Smith, who invited pals like McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard to come south and jam. "We started doin' really good business, which helped a whole lot, because that street was pretty dead!"

Don't count on catching Smith at O'Hara's anytime soon, even though he has a home in "North Lauderdale, right on the cusp of Tamarac."

"I'm never in town that much," he says. He just returned from a trip to Vancouver and leaves again in a few days. Besides, even if you happened to catch a Dr. Lonnie Smith show, it's unlikely you'd hear any Beck songs. "I feel that I'm going to do something a little different," he announces. "That's what I have plans to do. Something quite different. Yeah."

 
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