In the Hands of the Doctor
Posted 8/4/2014

The Turbanator, Dr. Lonnie Smith, is one of the jazz worldís more enigmatic figures, and not just for his apocryphal doctorate and distinctive choice of headgear. A staunch devotee of spontaneity and improvisation, Smith keeps his bandmates on their toes with the rule of whim, simultaneously supplying hardcore groove support during their own flights of fancy.

Such was amply demonstrated at the Gesù Centre de Créativité on June 30 during the 2014 Montreal Jazz Festival, when Smith presented a generous double set with the crack octet featured on his recent album In The Beginning, Volumes 1 & 2 (Pilgrimage), which vividly refashions classic cuts from his Blue Note heyday.

DownBeat sat down with Smith in his hotel room on the following day. Already immaculately attired in a fresh turban despite his late-night gig, he was ever upbeat and ready for the new day.

DownBeat: You are up and at it, fresh as a daisy, despite the late show?

Dr. Lonnie Smith: I never adjust my clock when I travel, I keep my regime and encourage my musicians to do the same. And itís important to keep a positive outlook. Even when youíve been waiting in the airport seven hours, you donít put yourself in an evil mood. Donít ever do that. Surround yourself with beautiful people and throw out the vibe.

I was reminded, if youíll forgive the pun, how ďorganicĒ your music is last night. The extra set was a surprise. Was that a way to fully showcase the talents of your octet?

I love to do that—it makes sense to me. You have great musicians and you want them to be heard. Also, itís not just about me or the leader, itís about the brotherhood of the musical genius of the guys. I love the way they play and I want to hear them also.

What is the genesis of the octet idea?

Well, I wanted to do a re-creation of the way I used to play music earlier on. I always had horns, so I spoke with my friend Ian Hendrickson-Smith—the alto player in the band—and the musicians he chose are fantastic. If you notice, they are actually all leaders in their own right. They are clean and beautiful and thatís refreshing to see. People spend their money to come see you and you want to show them some respect for that.

Drummer Johnathan Blake is key to the band. Itís unusual the way he lays his cymbals so low and deploys minimum body movement to maximum effect.

It works for him, he has it set up beautifully. Iíve played with drummers who had the cymbals set up high and it might look nice, but it canít be comfortable. He has it all laid out like heís cooking.

There is no sheet music and your musicians never know completely what is going to happen, and yet the perfectly poised groove is paramount.

I donít like everything so planned and definite. When you play everything precise, itís a different feeling for me and causes me to stay in a block. My mind travels a lot and I really want to feel the way the audience feels with everything I play—thatís very important to me. Itís not something deliberate where you know exactly whatís coming.

When the horns left the stage and exited the hall while still playing, we didnít know if the show was over or not. I asked them, ďWhereís the Doctor?Ē They said, ďI think heís gone, thatís it.Ē They didnít realize you were going back to the stage.

We have fun and that is the way it is supposed to be: spontaneous. Itís not so deliberate that you do something that others canít keep up with because basically we are talking and responding. The beauty of music is listening to someone else speak and then answering. You donít try to crowd them so they canít speak. Music actually plays itself.

It is ironic that you sporadically create string and brass orchestra sounds on the MIDI keyboard atop your Hammond, which almost renders the musicians onstage redundant at those times. Apart from suggesting an extended palette, however, it allows the audience to see your hands at work.

For many years Iíve dabbled when things came out—the Moog, the Arp, the clavinet, the Wurlitzer that Ray Charles used on ďWhatíd I Say?Ē I always loved sound textures, so I use the MIDI if I can see a path that fits at the time, without trying to destroy the music, just adding colors. I used to have about eight keyboards with me and it was fun, but truthfully speaking, the organ, thereís nothing like it, nothing as deep. Why? Because it expresses my feelings more than the rest of the instruments, all in one. With the organ, itís an extension of my body; I can breathe my feeling the way I want.

You had fun with your classic from yesteryear ďTurning Point.Ē Itís like a maelstrom with the inner spiral moving faster than the outer, a bit like a turban swirl really, to mix metaphors.

What I like the music to do is just play life, then you canít go wrong. Why? Because it is true and honest. In other words, everything is not going to go the way you want it to all the time. Every club, concert, set is a different thing and it takes you somewhere else. Itís like cooking a curry: You think you might put a little spice in there, but maybe you put too much. But thatís OK because if you are a horn player you are reaching for something—badiddle-ee-dat-beep-bap-blee-bap! You know what I am saying? Thatís why I love the feeling, because if you didnít reach it, thatís OK. Itís like a weight lifter straining to lift: Heís pushing up and sometimes itís the breath, itís the wind. You watched him make that shot … Ah! And itís OK if you donít quite make it, because thatís what itís all about, feeliní good and feeliní whatís inside. You have to play life and keep it there, not just be mechanical, because you are not a robot.

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Dr. Lonnie Smith released In The Beginning, Volumes 1 & 2 on his own label, Pilgrimage, last year. (Photo: Michael Jackson)

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