Hammond Heavy | Music Sidebar | Chicago Reader

Hammond Heavy 

What do these four albums have in common? Organ genius Gary Versace.





Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts

WHEN Sat 2/24, 8 PM

WHERE Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway


INFO 773-878-5552

Of all the bands led by New York drummer Matt Wilson, his quartet Arts & Crafts--with bassist Dennis Irwin, trumpeter Terell Stafford, and outstanding new organist Gary Versace--is by far the most accessible. And of their three discs, the new The Scenic Route--which the band celebrates this Saturday with a release party at the Green Mill--is the one to beat. Whatever the context, Wilson plays with a sometimes sly, sometimes goofy sense of humor, using a stripped-down drum kit and an unpretentious but delightfully inventive technique--no show-offy round-the-cymbals fireworks for him. These qualities have placed him in great demand with bandleaders, and the list of folks he's backed ranges from conventional pianists like Bill Mays and Dena DeRose to iconoclasts like Lee Konitz and Andrew Hill; he's done a stint in Charlie Haden's wild-ass Liberation Music Orchestra too.

On The Scenic Route, he does his best job yet stitching these disparate interests and influences into a seamless whole. His choice of material makes for a perfect example. The disc includes several of his own tunes and a standard or two, but among them he's nestled songs by three apparently unrelated jazz icons--Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, and Pat Metheny--and in so doing underscored the purity of melody they rather unexpectedly share.

Irwin, a veteran bassist with a huge resume, balances Wilson's irony with a dry tone and impeccable note choices. Stafford, a young classically trained trumpeter, has finally shed the last vestiges of his concert-hall posture--you can practically feel the swing start down in his knees and work its way up to his horn. And Wilson's loosey-goosey bounce on Monk's "We See" makes me wish he'd lived earlier or Monk later. I'd have paid real money to hear them work together.

Even given all that, it's the new keyboardist in Arts & Crafts who deserves the attention here. Versace has replaced Larry Goldings, the preeminent jazz organist of his generation, on piano and Hammond B-3. No one should be asked to fill those shoes, but on Versace they look pretty good.

The thirtysomething Goldings has a pack of followers--including Sam Yahel, Jim Alfredson of Organissimo, George Colligan, and Jared Gold--each of whom has grabbed his 15 minutes as the "new phenom" on the B-3. Versace has seized the spotlight most recently and doesn't seem inclined to let it go: he appears on a slew of recent releases, including a couple under his own name, and spent much of January in the studio working on several more.

Versace establishes his presence on The Scenic Route from the get-go. The irresistible title track, which opens the disc, is a lopsided, deviant blues (the melody cycles through phrases of 10, 11, and 12 beats) on a boogaloo shuffle, punctuated by chattery organ stingers. And though Versace doesn't exactly solo here, his comp work behind Stafford sets the tone for the tune; as the track ends, Stafford and Irwin spin clusters of riffs off and around the organist's off-kilter lines, judiciously placed chords, and resonant voicings. Versace gets to stretch out a good deal more on "25 Years of Rootabagas," which despite its Zappa-esque title is a more or less conventional slow dance: he gives us B-3 at its blowsiest, with plenty of swell and surge and roller-rink melodrama, both sassing and saluting the soul-ballad tradition.

The Hammond organ's stops and drawbars allow for a broad range of effects, and much of the instrument's allure--or burden--lies in deciding which ones to paint with and when. Versace uses a more restricted palette of tonal colors than Goldings (who consistently comes up with sounds I've never heard anyone use before or since), but he gets deeper into the nuances of each. It's this characteristic--along with an architectural flair in building his solos--that distinguishes his style.

Because Wilson intends Arts & Crafts to veer between hipster-inspired organ group and straight-ahead horn quartet, Versace has to switch from B-3 to piano. But Live @ the Fat Cat, an incendiary trio date led by guitarist Sheryl Bailey, gives listeners an unadulterated dose of Versace's organ work. Recorded about 15 months ago in Greenwich Village but only released last fall, the disc is not only a grand showcase for Versace but also a musical breakthrough for Bailey, one of the few women to master jazz guitar and among the better modern players of either gender. Their interplay--with each other and with drummer Ian Froman--is tremendously vital and cohesive. And Bailey proves herself a formidable composer: she wrote every one of the album's nine tunes, and at least three ought to find their way into other guitarists' repertoires.

On one of those three, the bustling "Cedar's Mood," Bailey's fiery opening solo brims with well-paced excitement and well-placed technique, building to two separate peaks before Versace grabs the baton. He begins with a stuttering motif that by the end of the first chorus has grown into a nugget of melody; he tosses it around the scale, then develops it into a solo both busy and lyrical, all the while echoing the initial motif. It's short, very sweet, and a telling example of his improvisatory approach: Versace thinks like a pianist more than an organist, refusing to allow the instrument's bells and whistles to distract him from his devotion to melody. On the very next tune, "A Soft Green Light," he starts with three- and four-note riffs as humble as paving stones, then quickly assembles them into an ornate musical cityscape. Though his materials here are the most basic of musical building blocks--mostly scalar runs and arpeggios--he balances them so artfully that a coherent and original statement emerges in just under two minutes. Throughout the album Versace makes a wonderful foil for Bailey: his nuanced performance, on an instrument that tempts so many players into bluster, complements her wilder solos and supports her quieter turns.

Versace has also issued his second album as the leader of his own organ trio. Many Places, a program of standards and Versace's own straight-ahead compositions that's stocked with a treasury of inviting and rewarding solos, provides a primer on his distinctive stylistic touches, but it doesn't measure up to the Bailey disc. Many Places stars Matt Wilson, who plays with a more typically "jazz" feel than on The Scenic Route. His penchant for mischief doesn't obscure his love for the tradition, and he turns in some of the tastiest (and most tasteful) mainstream drumming you'll hear anywhere, understated except where it's not and brimming with blithe spirit. But the third member of the trio, saxist Dick Oatts--a veteran of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and an all-around solid citizen, musically speaking--strikes me as an odd choice for this group, one that keeps it from quite jelling, despite Versace and Wilson's inspiring chemistry.

Oatts's main sax is the alto, on which he has a smallish, slightly acerbic tone: it's a sound that works well in many contexts, but it pales against the gigantic, full-blooded roar of the organ, which billows out of its Leslie speaker like a storm front. Organ trios with horns almost always depend on the bigger, darker shades of the tenor (or at least on a brassier alto sound, like that of Lou Donaldson or Phil Woods), and though Oatts does play some tenor here, to my ears it's clearly not his bag.

Versace sounds great on Many Places, though, as he does on all the diverse albums he's played on lately. This versatility, along with his status as the "hot guy" on organ, no doubt persuaded guitarist Rez Abbasi to invite him into his latest project, an intriguing blend of jazz, rock, and Indian music, with plenty of tabla, Indian vocals, and guest solos by saxist Rudresh Mahanthappa. Though I like the band's new disc, Bazaar (I'm a sucker for attempts to fuse jazz with the improvisatory classical tradition of the subcontinent), Versace takes only the occasional solo. When he does get the nod, as on "Life Goes," he devastates the landscape with the appropriate fusion-inspired Sturm und Drang, but he doesn't have an awful lot to do here, despite his sensitivity as an accompanist. Given the breadth of his musicality, it's a little like handing crayons to Michelangelo.

For more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills at chicagoreader.com.

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