Some of the most accomplished musicians in world will gather at the annual OceanFirst Bank Foundation Jazz @the Point Festival starting 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 10, and running through 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 13.
The festival, well into its second decade, takes place at five different locations — four in Somers Point and one in Ocean City — and is the largest of several events hosted annually by the Somers Point Jazz Society.
This year’s Jazz @the Point Fest is dubbed the Jazz Organ Summit, and celebrates how the Hammond organ filtered its way into the annals of jazz from its 1930s roots primarily as a church instrument. Much of that history is credited to the musicians and their proteges who cut their teeth in the jazz-rich niches of Philadelphia and Atlantic City in the 1950s-’60s and beyond.
“The jazz organ was predominantly started in Philadelphia with Jimmy Smith, and Philadelphia has since become a mecca of jazz organ players,” says Joe Donofrio, sixth-year artistic director for the South Jersey Jazz Society.
Smith was a jazz pianist from the Philly suburb of Norristown, but witnessed “Wild” Bill Davis perform on the Hammond B-3 organ at the famed Club Harlem in Atlantic City in 1953. He immediately switched instruments, and his prowess inspired other jazz-organ greats — among them “Papa” John DeFrancesco — who helped give Philadelphia the unofficial title of Jazz Organ Capital of the World.
This fall’s Jazz @ the Point Fest’s impressive list of headliners includes the Philly-born Joey DeFrancesco, John’s son, who Donofrio — a lifelong music aficionado and six-time Grammy-winning producer — says is widely recognized in the jazz community as the best jazz organist in the world. DeFrancesco’s trio plays in the festival’s prime time slot of 7 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the Gateway Playhouse.
Other headline acts at the Gateway include the Akiko Tsuruga Quartet from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, the Pat Bianchi Quartet from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Friday, and the Lucas Brown Septet from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday. Tony Monaco is another highly regarded jazz organist who takes the stage with his trio 9:30 to 11 p.m. Saturday at Gregory’s Restaurant.
Philadelphia-born saxophone master Michael Pedicin will cap the festival from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday with a free presentation at the Ocean City Library outlining the jazz organ’s Philly/A.C. connection.
“Unless you’re really into the music, you might not be aware of how world-renowned some of these jazz artists are,” Donofrio says. “Akiko, who opens our festival Thursday, is a real heavyweight, and her husband, Joe Magnarelli, is one of the most acclaimed trumpet players out there. Carmen Intorre is the drummer in that group, and he’s also world famous.”
Joe Locke, a member of Bianchi’s quartet along with guitarist Paul Bollenback and drummer Byron Landham, is considered one of the top vibraphone players in the world, says Donofrio.
DeFrancesco’s ‘Philly Cats’
The jazz community is a fraternity of sorts, in the sense that players sometimes intermingle among trios, quartets and ensembles. When Joey DeFrancesco performed in Atlantic City back in 2011, his trio featured Bollenback and Landham, who are slated to play in Bianchi’s quartet in Somers Point on Friday night.
Two of his more recent sidemen — players who performed on his March-released album called “In the Key of the Universe,” and will accompany him on a string of gigs at a famous British jazz club called Ronnie Scott’s later this month — are saxophonist Troy Roberts and drummer Billy Hart.
In Somers Point, DeFrancesco will be backed up by Philly-based jazz standouts Khary Shaheed on drums and Victor North on sax.
“I call them my cats from Philly,” DeFrancesco says of Shaheed and North.
DeFrancesco notes that even when jazz artists operate off a set list during live gigs, which is something he did infrequently throughout his career thus far, there is always a profusion of spontaneity taking place within each song. Proficiency on the part of all musicians involved is needed to make a jazz number flow seamlessly, he says.
“That’s the beauty of improvised music — you never play the same song twice,” DeFrancesco says. “And what people seem to forget is that this goes back to the beginning of time. Artists like Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin — they were improvising all the time. Everything they played started as an improvisation, then they wrote down the music so they could play it again. Then they’d play the scripted music and add things to it after that.
“That approach has been around for a long time, and it’s always been my approach,” he adds. “There are players who work out every idea so that they play a perfect solo every time – I can’t do that. It’s not wrong, it just depends on how you think of the music and how you approach it.”
Jazz musicians often take visual and acoustic cues off one another as a song evolves, so that solos and improvisation sound smooth.
“Obviously we have a vocabulary that we create as we evolve and we keep adding to it, so there’s ideas that are part of your trick bag,” he says. “There are songs I haven’t played in a long time that I’ll hear from an old record, or someone brings it to my attention, and I’ll say ‘Wow I forgot about that,’ and you add it to the mix and put it back in the memory bank. That type of thing happens all the time.”
Bianchi a student and contemporary
At age 43, the Rochester, New York-born Pat Bianchi is only about five years younger than DeFrancesco, but still looks up to him as a mentor despite having achieved similar levels of success on the organ in the upper echelon of the jazz world.
“I’ve worked with Joey for almost 25 years now,” says the two-time Grammy nominated Bianchi. “There’s sort of a special connection for me because Joey was a huge influence and one of the biggest deciding factors for me to have played organ.
“I started off playing organ as a kid, then switched to playing jazz piano,” he says. “When I was about 16 or 17 years old I was given Joey’s (1993) CD ‘Live at the 5 Spot’, which was for me was like the turning point in my musical pursuit. I knew I wanted to play jazz organ.
“Both Paul (Bollenback) and Byron (Landham) were on that record too, so those two are definitely first-call guys for me any chance I get to work with them. I still feel like a kid when I’m up there on the bandstand with – I wouldn’t say my childhood heroes, because there’s not a huge difference in age – but with guys whose musicial influence has been a special thing for me.”
Later this month and into November, Bianchi and his trio are opening a string of 14 gigs with the iconic rock band Steely Dan, whose co-creators Donald Fagan and the late Walter Becker were both highly influenced by jazz.