After Smith slowly descended the stairs, stopping for many pictures and handshakes along the way, his trio received a brief introduction amidst the bubbling conversations of the room and they took the stage.
Sitting behind his vintage Hammond, Smith started the night with an unexpected ethereal voyage from one of the many, small Korg keyboards spread across the monstrous organ's wooden frame, blending a soft synthesizer ambience with the sounds of orchestral strings. Jonathan Kreisberg joined in with a light touch on the guitar as James Carter took the stage, carrying three saxophones easily in hand as if they were stuffed toys. Taking only a moment to get situated, Carter took up his soprano and the band broke suddenly into a hard funk, launched by a quick riff on Kreisberg's guitar.
It seemed that a night of soulful funk had just begun, but instead it quickly took a turn into a fast paced, fusion styled frenzy with lengthy solos for everybody on stage. Kreisberg's solos were full of cascading riffs and never anything simple as his fingers and hand moved constantly across the frets. Always connected deeply to the music, he would complement his phrases with a variety of facial expressions and head movements, with a dash of scatting along softly. However, it was Jamire Williams on the drums that seemed most remarkable. He maintained a furious pace for a very lengthy solo, creating rhythms from quick variations as he moved across the drum set that stood out with a second snare at the far right and a gentle touch on the kick pedal that resembled a deep tom in tone.
The set certainly didn't maintain the same style throughout, as the traditionally funk focused trio combined with the adventurous and avant-garde style that Carter has used to establish his place in the scene. They followed the first frenzy with a slow and sauntering blues styled piece that included Smith singing softly along and included solos from Carter on both the soprano and baritone. From there, they progressed to a song called "Mellow Mood" that had evolved to become rather inappropriately named, resembling the intensity of the set's first song as they jammed out together as a band.
The night got particularly interesting as Dr. Lonnie Smith experienced a little bit of a problem with the computer that controlled his keyboards. He casually asked Carter to "go ahead and play. I got your back," which began a freeform jam session. Carter took the lead in a rather experimental styled jam with a lot of give and take with Kreisberg. Here, the amazing range of sounds that the reed instrumentalist has in his repertoire was vibrantly highlighted, not that it didn't appear throughout the set as well. He was capable of making deliberately controlled squeaks and pops contrasted with a light touch of hums and fluttered keys. Carter would rock and jerk his body around, seemingly teasing the microphone and attempting to throw certain notes across the room for further emphasis.
Smith was also undoubtedly entertaining in his stage presence and solos. In addition to singing along with many segments, he would accentuate his licks with big hand motions, almost cheering himself on at times. He would lose himself in the music with his eyes closed with a serene smile across his face as he confirmed his title as "King of Funk Organ" and beyond as the set progressed through many styles. He came to life during a modern cover of "My Favorite Things," once again adding symphonic touches from his Korg set-up, and then adding a soulful touch in "Pilgrimage," a track from the newest album.
Without disappointment, the crowd of funk enthusiasts may have been a bit surprised by the style of many of the songs, but left thoroughly pleased by the show they received. However, as not to let down those hoping for some unbridled funk, the group closed with a quick but fierce jam in Smith's favorite style that had even the aging organist standing up on stage, playing air guitar on his walking cane, sharing the joy of music with the grateful crowd.
Photos by Wil Wander.