Duke Performances presents Dr. Lonnie Smith, among others | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Duke Performances presents Dr. Lonnie Smith, among others 

Memories and memes: exploring the soul-jazz divideand just playing

Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke University's Duke Performances, is talking soul music, and he wants the rest of us to do the same.

"The idea behind the performances is to have as broad a conversation and as honest a conversation as you can have about soul music," says Greenwald about the latest Duke Performances series, Soul Power: From Gospel to the Godfather. Over the next month and a half, the series will explore soul's roots in gospel, the perceived barriers between what was happening at Stax and Motown, and soul music's impact on hip-hop culture.

An event that Greenwald calls the Soul Jazz Summit will be the opening conversation piece: Hammond B3 king Dr. Lonnie Smith will play with his trio of guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Herlin Riley. Three special guests make this a summit in both senses of the word: Tenor saxophonists David "Fathead" Newman and his HighNote labelmate Houston Person will join Smith with North Carolina's own alto man Lou Donaldson. Newman was an original member of Ray Charles' Band, and Person collaborated with Etta Jones for three decades. Aside from 50 years as a bandleader, Donaldson has worked with Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Milt Jackson and Big John Patton.

We caught up with Newman and Smith—the former straight-ahead in his conversation, the latter a little more free-form—to talk about the soul/ jazz/ gospel/ R&B divides and their expectations for this week's monumental collaboration.

click to enlarge David Newman - PHOTO BY GENE MARTIN
  • Photo by Gene Martin
  • David Newman

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: There's your long association with Ray Charles, recording with Aretha Franklin and Herbie Mann, your own recordings: What memories really stand out for you?

DAVID NEWMAN: Well, I tell you, there have been so many high moments and high times during my career. I guess, maybe, my first time playing at the Jazz at Newport concert. That was one of the highlights in my career because I got the chance to see so many artists that I had never seen before, people like Lester Young and Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington's Big Band—just a host of people.

How much of an adjustment is it playing in different groups and with different collaborators? Is there an adjustment period each time?

There's really no problem adjusting. It is usually just business as usual because, as jazz artists, we've played together many times. We know the music and the different movements, and we understand how well that can go together. So it's no problem when we get together. The main thing is deciding what we want to play, what material we're going to use, because there are so many tunes out there to play. If there is a problem, that's it: We have to settle on what we're going to play. [Laughs.]

There seems to be a fine line between soul and jazz and R&B and funk. Is that something you think about, or is it all just music to you?

It all comes together at some point. It's all music and all American music, you know. America's contribution to the arts. I grew up on the tail end of the swing era, and the big bands were all over the country—the Ellingtons and the Dorseys and the Millers, Cab Calloway. All the big bands. Then in comes the era of bebop. That was a new thing, and I fell right into that. So, actually, I grew up as a bebop artist. Of course, I was surrounded by blues. ... It's a wonderful thing to be able to appreciate and play the different genres. But I consider myself a mainstream jazz musician, a contemporary jazz musician.

click to enlarge Dr. Lonnie Smith - PHOTO BY LOURDES DELGADO
  • Photo by Lourdes Delgado
  • Dr. Lonnie Smith

INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: When did you first realize the Hammond B3 was the instrument for you?

DR. LONNIE SMITH: Right away, right away. There always used to be organs in the churches, and I was in love with them then. But I always loved music and instruments period. I realized it when I first heard it because I used to hear Wild Bill [Davis], Milt Buckner, Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith—all of them. So I loved the organ. There was a chance for me to play it with my brothers. They played drums, guitar and bass, so I decided to try to play this, this beast here.

But you've tamed it—or is it still wild?

Well, I've got the beast a little bit under control. [Laughs.] I've got him chained a little, so he's on my side, you know?

There seems to be a fine line between soul and jazz and R&B and funk. Is that something you think about, or is it all just music to you?

They're names. They're all just really names. They try to separate, try to differentiate some of the sounds of music. Basically, they're just names. I've done a lot of concerts lately, and they're kind of mixing it up, the way I see it. If I'm playing jazz, and I look on the roster and see some other artist that don't particularly play jazz, then it's kind of hard to say.

For the concert in Durham, it'll be your trio plus guests David Newman, Lou Donaldson and Houston Person.

Now if you're talking about soul ... [Laughs.] That's for sure. I can definitely say that's for sure. They're playing straight from the heart. That's a lot of soul there, a lot of soul.

How much of an adjustment is it playing in different groups and with different collaborators? Is there an adjustment period each time? How will it work in Durham?

Well, it'll work fine because we've all played together before, at some time. David Newman and I used to play together years ago. And also I remember Houston from those days. And Lou and I go back some time, and we've been together off and on for many, many years. So there's history. They're family, they're much more than just friends. So it's a happy occasion.

The Lonnie Smith Trio with David "Fathead" Newman, Lou Donaldson and Houston Person perform at Reynolds Industries Theater Saturday, Jan.19, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $5-$38. For more information, visit dukeperformances.duke.edu/programs/soulpower.


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