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Yoron Israel - Chicago


Joe Lovano - Tenor/Soprano Sax, Larry Goldings - B-3 Organ, Marvin Sewell - Guitar, Yoron Israel - Drums

1. Nice And Easy
2. Triology
3. That’s The Way Of The World
4. Picket Fences
5. Valdez In The Country
6. Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
7. Down Through The Years
8. Green’s
9. Indigo Dreamscapes
10. Battery Blues
Total Time 71:00

Listen to CD Tracks

  WELCOME TO CHICAGO.”  The billboard, signed Richard M. Daley, Mayor, greets vehicles as they exit O’Hare International Airport and shoot down the Kennedy expressway on a southeast diagonal to the looming mighty but somehow graceful downtown skyline.  It’s Michael Jordan’s Chicago, Oprah Winfrey’s Chicago, the Chicago of Helmut Jahn and Charlie Trotter’s and the Monroe Harbor, Sammy Sosa and Michigan Avenue, Buckingham Fountain and the Field Museum of Natural History.

   But continue further south, past the skyline and the Loop, past the University of Chicago, and you come to the heart of Chicago’s African-American community: an island within a city, far removed from the gleaming towers to the north; gritty, homey, steeped in Afrocentric culture and barbecue, churches and lounges, a city within itself; the birthplace or homefront for dozens of musicians who’ve left their sonic footprints on history.

   Welcome to Chicago.  This time, your host is Yoron Israel.

   In this spot, from the 50s through the 70s, the organ trio - that marvelously compact and blessedly untidy combo - supplied the theme song.  So when Israel decided to update the concept with the trio he calls Organic, he didn’t hesitate in choosing titling the band’s debut after the city itself.  Israel has done more than just dedicate this disc to sweet home Chicago: he’s filled it with the sounds of the city as heard by its native geniuses, ranging from jazz legends Johnny Griffin and Jack DeJohnette to pop icons Donny Hathaway and Maurice White (the driving force behind the 70s superband Earth, Wind & Fire).  “Yes, all the compositions are by Chicago artists,” Israel points out; “that’s why I chose the title, because I wanted to celebrate the whole legacy of Chicago as I experienced it growing up.

   “There’s a dance quality to the music,” he explains: “that’s what accounts for the commonality among all of us.  It comes from the whole Chicago experience, which includes being exposed to a variety of musical styles and not really thinking twice about it.”  That’s because Chicago - despite being the third largest American city - has a smaller base population than the east- and west-coast mega-cities; as a result, it doesn’t support quite the same degree of specialization that characterize New York and Los Angeles.  As a result, says Israel, “I was afforded the opportunity to be involved in a lot of different music on a very high level.”  In Chicago, musicians face less pigeonholing: “people wouldn’t think you couldn’t play gospel or symphonic music just because you played jazz.  This was one of my most valuable experiences as a musician - being expected to play any style of music, not just play at a style of music.

 “And because Chicago is as big as it is, with so much music going on in a lot of different scenes, you can actually make a living playing music - unlike a lot of places. The city is just the right size.” 

In choosing to honor his roots with the organ combo - a format that remains popular in Chicago, thanks to such latter-day exponents as Charles Earland and Karl Montzka - Israel hasn’t settled for merely re-creating the standard fare.  He’s too committed to innovation, too dedicated to putting his own footprint on the music he plays.  (This quality has placed him in considerable demand since he left Chicago for New York in 1987.  He’s appeared on more than 50 discs - backing, among others, Ahmad Jamal, Art Farmer, Abbey Lincoln, Joe Lovano, James Williams, Kenny Burrell, and Chico Freeman - and on concert dates with musicians ranging from Tony Bennett to Sonny Rollins.) 
“I love that soulful groove that is traditionally associated with the organ,” Israel admits.  “But I also want to explore some more adventuorus things in this format.  For instance, we do a few things heavily associated with the usual ‘organ sound,’ but in choosing the repertoire, I found songs that were sort of removed from that tradition: ‘Indigo Dreamscapes’ by Jack DeJohnette and and Clifford Jordan’s ‘Down Through the Years,’ are two such examples.

 “Even though it’s an organ trio, I want ‘Organic’ to have the looseness and flexibility of a quintet - or even a piano trio.  So it’s not always that organ groove.  I’m aiming for a sound and feel that’s not dense and locked-in.  The music of Larry Young - specifically the album Unity [recorded for Blue Note in 1965] - is the place where I wanted to start at, and move it along from there.  Our texture is lighter than the traditional organ trio, and that has a lot to do with what I’m doing rhythmically, and with the individuals in the band.”

 Yes indeed: Israel’s work throughout this album sparkles with crisp, unexpected accents and counter-rhythms that play against type.  You can start with the tap-dance he provides for Donny Hathaway’s infectious “Valdez in the Country” (originally heard on Hathaway’s classic Extensions of a Man).  Or try Israel’s own composition, “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” on which he maintains a typical soul-jazz beat but does so much more - masking it with shuffle-march figures, tinting it with dynamic cymbal shimmers, and piercing the patterns with sudden rhythmic displacements.

 These tunes contrast vividly with the album opener, “Nice and Easy,” written by one of Chicago’s archtypal tenor saxists, Johnny Griffin.  It’s a solid, no-nonsense blues shout, and the most traditional-sounding track on the album - as befits its heritage.  (Griffin recorded it on his 1957 Blue Note date Introducing Johnny Griffin, which also featured his famous tune “Chicago Calling.”)  This track provides a perfect introduction to the rest of Organic - the gifted keyboardist Larry Goldings and a dynamic newcomer in guitarist Marvin Sewell - allowing them to stake their claim in the organ-trio tradition before they start expanding the territory.  Just listen to Sewell’s hand-dripped, rawboned solo and Goldings’s full-frontal attack on the Hammond B-3 keys - and keep an ear open for the allusion to “Red Top” (the great hit by Gene Ammons, another native Chi-towner) in measures 9 and 10 of the theme.

 “Triology,” based on the structure of “I’ve Got Rhythm,” gets its title from its overarching concept.  Israel designed the song to avoid the usual format, in which each instrument takes one discrete solo, in favor of a continuing conversation - a trialog - among the three musicians.  “First the organ plays one chorus, then the guitar takes some of those ideas and plays a chorus, and then the drums take a chorus, with Larry’s bass lines continuing to comp.  So it’s like a constant trading of choruses” - one long solo batted about by three like minds.

 The next two tunes add Joe Lovano, Israel’s frequent employer and among the most respected musicians of his generation.  On “That’s the Way of the World,” Lovano’s soprano snakes its way across the pop-soul contours of Maurice White’s dance anthem; Goldings drops back to shade the sax with a wide range of colors, as Israel bubbles along with a beat that straddles soul and samba.  Lovano switches to tenor for the eminently indolent “Picket Fences,” Israel’s waltz-time evocation of  “a relaxed, summer afternoon, looking over the landscape in Maplewood, N.J.,” where he and his family now live.  The song
has a blues feel, but it runs only ten measures instead of the usual twelve, which helps account for its dreamy, off-kilter quality.

 “Valdez” with its light, lithe rhythm and loose line, leads to “Here Today,” which neatly encapsulates Organic’s goals.  Although the song is based on a typical rhythm - and also mimics the harmonic scheme of “Killer Joe,” a soul-jazz standard - Israel points out that “the bridge features contrasting harmonies and rhythms along with tight ensemble figures.  So it merges the worlds of typical organ-groove and small-group arrangement.”  Sewell brings his solo from slumbering groans to bluesy argument in less than a chorus, and Goldings works his usual magic, mercurial and clever without becoming glib.  Next comes “Down Through The Years,” a gentle memoir by the late Clifford Jordan, one of the leading torch-carriers for the Chicago tenor-sax tradition that flourished in the 50s; it serves as another showcase for Lovano, who paints a glowing picture filled with rich details.

 “Green’s” is dedicated to a master communicator of 60s jazz, guitarist Grant Green, and moves from an African-inspired triplet rhythm to “an Art Blakey-type shuffle feel for the solos.   The tune itself is actually very basic, harmonically; the melody was inspired by the beat itself.  I composed it from the drums, instead of at the piano.  That’s one of my current projects: to write from the drums, and to bring to the forefront the kind of concepts that we deal with as percussionists.”  The remaining tracks - by drummer Jack DeJohnette and trombonist Julian Priester, both of whom came of age in 1950s Chicago - epitomize the range of Organic, from post-fusion progressivism to bare-knuckle Chicago blues.

 No matter how strong the concepts underlying Chicago, none of them would work without this band’s spectacular execution.  Marvin Sewell, a college classmate of Israel’s at Chicago’s Roosevelt University and still relatively new to the national scene, has recorded with Jack DeJohnette and currently performs with Cassandra Wilson.  Besides his genre-stretching guitar work, Sewell can boast expertise on a variety of other fretted instruments - from 12-string acoustic guitar to dobro - and Israel hopes to incorporate these in later Organic recordings.  Here, he lays bare a soulful, provocative approach to improvisation, steeped in tradition but not restricted to jazz for his inspiration.

 Goldings has energized enough top bands (led by John Scofield, Jim Hall, Maceo Parker, Jon Hendricks) for enough years to belie both his age and his relative inexperience at the organ.  Just 30 at the time of this recording, he began playing the instrument in his mid-20s, but he has quickly risen to the top rank of the musicians who’ve revived the organ-jazz sound in the 90s.  He brings a light touch, a dark wit, and an expansive tonal palette to the music, along with an indefatigable swing; his solo concept, note-filled and eminently lyrical, bounces off his colleagues’ work like a new Spalding.

 No one appreciates Goldings more than Yoron Israel, who played the organ as his first instrument before switching to the drums as a teenager; even then, he couldn’t escape the lure of the Hammond B-3.  “There was a time when it seemed that all I did was play with organ players,” he says, happy to return the favor in Organic (one of two bands he currently leads, along with an acoustic quintet called Connection).  Israel belongs to a select group of drummers - ranging from Art Blakey to Max Roach to Paul Motian to and Ronald Shannon Jackson - who can lead from the rear of the bandstand and still project a distinct vision.  Both as a drummer and a composer, he avoids clutter, imparting a neat concision to his work even at its busiest.
 So sit back, relax, and let him drive.  Chicago beckons.

author, The PLAYBOY Guide to Jazz (Plume)