The best of Joey DeFrancesco: Five albums by the king of jazz organ

The death of Joey DeFrancesco at the age of 51 was a terrible blow to the jazz world. Universally regarded as the king of the Hammond B3 organ, DeFrancesco was both admired as an artist and loved as a man. His loss will not easily be made up.

Born into a musical family in Philadelphia, DeFrancesco signed his first recording contract at 16 and never stopped making records, releasing more than 30 albums as a leader and many more as a sideman. He toured constantly and made many appearances in Toronto where, as everywhere else, he built a large and enthusiastic following.

It’s nearly impossible to pick the “best” of Joey DeFrancesco. He played with such inventiveness, such energy and such joy that even just choosing any selection of tracks at random would still yield a great selection. I’ve been playing DeFrancesco’s music on my Thursday night show The Nightfly for years, and I see no reason to stop digging his genius.

If you’re looking for a good place to start, here are five essential records.

One for Rudy (2013)

Here, DeFrancesco is joined by guitarist Steve Cotter and drummer Ramon Banda for the classic “B3 trio” format. The 10 tracks were recorded in the legendary studio of Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., where the resident Hammond organ was played first by pioneer Jimmy Smith and many others. The standout is After You’ve Gone; the 1918 ballad that jazz artists have recorded more than 1,300 times; the well-loved tune serves as a virtuoso romp for Joey.

Singin’ and Swingin’ (1999)

Singin’? Absolutely. From time to time, DeFrancesco sang in a Sinatra-inflected style, featured in Mack the Knife, You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to and other tracks on this album. But the real standout is the 18-piece big band made up of some of Hollywood’s finest, including trumpeter Conte Candoli, tenor saxophonist Pete Christlieb and bass giant Ry Brown. Joey leads this impressive gathering like a champ.

Enjoy the View (2014)

Joey DeFrancesco played with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson on many occasions. Their respect was mutual: “Bobby is the greatest vibes player of all time,” DeFrancesco told DownBeat in 2013. “Milt Jackson was the guy, but Bobby took it to the next level. It’s like Milt was Charlie Parker, and Bobby was John Coltrane.” Their affinity is abundantly displayed on this album recorded in Hollywood with David Sanborn on alto and Billy Hart on drums. I had the pleasure of hearing Joey and Bobby play in New York the same month as this recording was made; it was an extraordinary experience, made all the more poignant by Hutcherson’s death a couple of weeks later.

You’re Driving Me Crazy (2018)

A duet album by Joey DeFrancesco and Van Morrison? Why didn’t they do this earlier? This 15-song collection is like sitting in a dream of a club and hearing two masters having a ball. Van hasn’t sounded this good in years, and he and Joey simply seem to be having a ball. This may be one of the great “driving albums,” too.

More Music (2021)

There may be further albums in the vaults, but this one, recorded in DeFrancesco’s home of Tempe, Ariz., was the last to be released in his lifetime. I’ve mentioned that Joey occasionally sang, but More Music shows off the full extent of his amazing versatility — not just the B3, but piano, other keyboards, trumpet and tenor sax, as well as his abilities as a composer and arranger. He’s joined by Lucas Brown on guitar and keyboards and Michael Ode on drums. The playing swings throughout, anything but predictable and endlessly satisfying. Joey D seemingly came into this world as a fully formed virtuoso, a musician’s musician, and he should have been with us for decades to come. We’ll mourn his untimely passing but celebrate his joyous music.

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