Joey DeFrancesco: Philly funk and soul master on the Hammond B3 organ

The music world abounds with references to Philly soul or Philly funk and its heritage of legendary musicians. Philly jazz musicians have also earned such iconic references. But there is one contemporary recording artist, constantly touring with top-shelf talent and held by most jazz musicians as a virtuoso on the Hammond B3 organ, whose roots run deep. Joey DeFrancesco has an association with The City of Brotherly Love as his family shares deep musical DNA. “I got it on both sides,” reflects his father, Papa John DeFrancesco, who had a respected, high-profile career as an organist. “My grandfather and my mother’s father were both musicians. The legacy goes way back in my family.” DeFrancesco started playing the piano at 4 and playing songs by Jimmy Smith when he was 5. As a musical family, DeFrancesco explains, “we were like the hip Partridge Family, every day, we’d be in the basement. We’d be set up by 4:30, then we’d eat dinner, then we’d go down to the basement again and play.”

Another critical Philadelphia connection and intersection in DeFrancesco’s life was finding a brother in kinship, the gifted and internationally renowned stand-up bassist, bandleader and current artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, Christian McBride. At Philadelphia’s High School for Creative and Performing Arts in the 1980s, DeFrancesco and McBride would become soulmates via their shared passion for jazz. In a featured NPR podcast, with McBride interviewing his old classmate and sometime bandmate, their past was clearly a critical starting point for development. “They were musical brothers then, bound by a deep love of the jazz tradition and the impressive scope of their youthful abilities. And while each has followed his own path since — leading bands, making albums, achieving preeminence in the field — that fraternal bond hasn’t faded or faltered.”

Attending and performing in gigs with his father around Philadelphia as a teenager, DeFrancesco’s exceptional abilities on the organ would draw accolades and attention. At 16, he was the first recipient of the Philadelphia Jazz Society’s McCoy Tyner Scholarship, and was also a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition.

During this same period, he would come to the attention of Miles Davis, as Davis was experimenting with funkier directions in jazz fusion. By chance, Davis had seen DeFrancesco on a television show, Time Out, when he was playing with his high school classmate Christian McBride. At 17, Davis asked him to join his touring band and he later recorded with Davis on Live Around the World (Warner Bros., 1988-91) and Amandla (Warner Bros., 1989). Along with other up-and-coming talent on this album, including guitarist Marcus Miller, altoist Kenny Garrett and pianists Joe Sample and Deron Johnson, this period with Davis was seminal in exposure and setting his foundation as a performer, holding his own with top-tier musicianship.    

A second instrument would draw in this exceptional organist. After watching Davis on horn on tour, DeFrancesco would start to teach himself the trumpet. “I started playing the trumpet because of him (Davis). I didn’t play it before that, I was listening, but I started playing because of him. It was really something to be right there and see him play every night, so when I came home from that tour I learned how to play the trumpet.”

Based on his success with Davis, DeFrancesco would sign an exclusive recording contract with Columbia Records, releasing his first debut album, All of Me (Columbia Records, 1989) and Where Were You (Columbia Records, 1990) and 3 more releases in consecutive years on the same label. These recordings would not only return the organ to jazz as a center-stage instrument, but also, with all the showmanship and flair put aside, would cement his reputation as a rising star and virtuoso.

Stepping into his first role as a bandleader, DeFrancesco toured with his own quartet at 18. Consequently, his previous touring and relationship with Davis brought him in touch with Davis’ former fusion guitarist and founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin. In the early ‘90s, they would tour together extensively and as well as recording, including After The Rain (1994), which offers an example of their paired chemistry. Together they would also form Free Spirit, a trio including Dennis Chambers on drums, following a jazz fusion direction with less of the hard edges. This trio is an exceptional example of how DeFrancesco’s Hammond organ instinctually overlays a competing instrument, in this case the sharp electric guitar instrumentation laid down by McLaughlin. Their release Tokyo Live (Verve, 1994), recorded at the Blue Note Tokyo jazz club, offers up a nightclub feel and ongoing exchanges between both musicians, particularly on Hijacked and Little Miss Valley.

In 2000 he would team up with his hero and greatest influence, Jimmy Smith, who not only popularized the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ, but created a link between jazz and 1960’s soul music. They would record together on Incredible (Concord Jazz, 2000) which shows off the jamming and blues renditions these two aficionados of the instrument can deliver. DeFrancesco offers high praise for his musical idol: “Jimmy is like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. He was the innovator to let everybody know what kind of stuff you can do on this instrument, with the bass line, with the left hand, with the accenting with the left foot, whatever it was, plus playing in different styles, like the Erroll Garner style on the organ, or playing single-note lines.”

DeFrancesco has additionally always sought out to mix with a wide variety of players in jazz, rock and blues. His distinctive style of swing, R&B, fusion and funk can be heard in the distinctive range of collaborations with artists including Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Diana Krall, Nancy Wilson George Benson, Larry Coryell and Buddy Guy.

DeFrancesco also does not feel the need to own the spotlight. As the organ is not thought of as a lead instrument, he happily shares the stage. In a November ’21 featured DownBeat article, Francesco relates how he enjoys backing up what’s happening on stage at the moment, “You know I’m big on comping, I mean, this probably sounds a little silly, but if someone is really killing it, I can be happy playin’ comp and not take a solo all night. Because when you’re comping, it’s not just you’re accompanying (the soloist) you’re accompanying the whole situation.”

In Philadelphia in 2017, prior to the release Project Freedom (Mack Avenue, 2017), DeFrancesco received a star on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame. Project Freedom was a personal musical expression of love and a belief in the personal impact of this city, as in his funky rendition of Sam Cooke’s classic A Change is Gonna Come. This release also includes his gorgeous take on John Lennon’s iconic, Imagine. Francesco stated his feelings for his home city and the special nature of this project, “that’s where all my inspiration comes from…It was never JUST organ, it was never JUST jazz for me.”

An additional recent highlight recording is In the Key of the Universe (Mack Avenue, 2019), which has substantial bandmate support from saxophonist Pharoah Saunders, drummer Billy Hart and percussionist Sammy Figueroa. The result is a spiritually inspired piece collectively. Matt Collar, music critic for AllMusic, gives it high marks for its emotional impact: “the album finds the organist tapping into the hypnotic, deeply soulful metaphysical jazz that artists like Pharoah Saunders, Don Cherry, and Rashaan Roland Kirk further explored in the wake of spiritual jazz pioneer John Coltrane‘s death in 1967.”

DeFrancesco continues to be a force in the music industry, active and brilliantly creative, and a supporter of young musicians with involvement in workshops and masterclasses, including Canada’s JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band. His Philly roots are still ever-present in the “swing” and “funk” of his style. In his own words, “The city’s vibe. That just happens. The sound of the street. Watching people. There’s always been a lot going on in Philly. That’ll never leave me.”