Every young artist must try to climb Olympus, mix it up with the gods and maybe hang around for dinner.
For Pat Bianchi, a 26-year-old jazz organist who means to make his mark, the big moment will come this week on funky old Larimer Street, when he plays a concert with his idol, Joey DeFrancesco. For jazz fans, the show at Herb's Hideout, a cozy, hard-used club on the same block where Charlie Parker used to blow, will provide a rare double dose of vitamin B-3 -- an unrehearsed, completely spontaneous, all-stops-out collision of the Hammond organs manned by the reigning king of the instrument and the guy the king calls his "little brother." DeFrancesco's longtime drummer, Byron Landham, will complete the trio.
Understandably, Bianchi is a bit apprehensive about this pivotal encounter with his mentor -- even though he's only four years younger. "I can't be nervous," he says, "because when that happens, I get self-destructive and I play down, tend to play it safe. Instead, I need to take risks. Trying to play up to his level will be beneficial in many ways in the future. I've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. So I've got to work on not being nervous."
Still, DeFrancesco doesn't hit town until the afternoon of the concert. Except for one nerve-wracking sit-in session at last year's Vail Jazz Party, Bianchi has never tested himself against his hero. What's more, the younger organist is also producing the show -- a considerable financial risk for a guy who lives in a small north Denver apartment where the most imposing piece of furniture is a walnut-finished Hammond B-3.
The risks are all worthwhile, going back a decade. As an already accomplished sixteen-year-old pianist studying in the prep-level program at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Bianchi heard DeFrancesco's seminal 1993 CD, Live at the Five Spot. It was a lightning bolt: "Nothing had ever sparked my attention like that," he remembers. "At first it was the sound of the organ itself, then it was what he was actually playing and the extraordinary ways the group was interacting. This was new."
Since that moment, Bianchi's career path has been clear. After graduating from Boston's Berklee College of Music in 1998, Bianchi moved to Denver, found his first vintage B-3 in suburban Thornton and sat down to find his voice. A year later he met DeFrancesco when the latter was playing a date at Vartan Jazz Club. The king and the acolyte hit it off: They were both single-minded musicians, their fathers were both musicians before them, and they shared a love for Mr. Hammond's notoriously difficult and temperamental invention.
Last summer, Bianchi worked up the nerve to propose Tuesday night's dueling-organs concert. He's been practicing four to six hours a day ever since, studying jazz solos by everyone from Hank Mobley to Sonny Rollins to Cannonball Adderley and all the major B-3 players, working his regular Denver gigs on organ and piano, and mentally preparing to play with the master. A rookie point guard going into a game with Michael Jordan couldn't be more excited.
"It really will be a lot of fun," Bianchi says. "We're going to go up there and play and just see where things go."
In the 1990s, DeFrancesco almost single-handedly revived the venerable Hammond B-3 as a jazz instrument, in an era in which synthesizers and samplers had made huge inroads into many types of music. The B-3 model, introduced in 1935, had first become a jazz bulwark in the mid-'50s, when Jimmy Smith, an electrifying young organist from Norristown, Pennsylvania, transformed its choir-loft drone into the bluesy, foot-stomping, head-shaking ecstasy of "soul jazz." While Smith's classic Blue Note LPs leaped out of the bins, new B-3 players like Brother Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Don Patterson and Jimmy McGriff emerged, and lesser practitioners began overheating neighborhood jazz joints from Chicago to Detroit to DeFrancesco's native Philadelphia.
But when straightahead jazz fell prey to rock and fusion in the '70s, the B-3 fell furthest. In 1975, Hammond stopped making classic B-3s (new models wouldn't be developed for fifteen more years), and, because purists insist that new-wave organ "simulators" don't reproduce true B-3 sound, players found themselves scouring the want ads to find an original in decent shape, or they depended on the occasional organ donor to help them make music. At ebb tide in the jazz world -- pre-Wynton Marsalis -- not even Smith, the godfather of B-3, held to the creed of invention. Instead, in the '70s and '80s, he opted to record a series of flagrantly commercial albums on the Verve label.
DeFrancesco's huge contribution to B-3 -- and to jazz in general -- has been to fuse the down-home grits-and-gravy style that his mentor, Smith, perfected in the late '50s with the nuances of bebop and the harmonic adventures of jazz experimentation. For a new generation of B-3 players -- including Sam Yahel, Tony Monaco and Bianchi -- DeFrancesco's work has been transcendent.
"To me, Joey is the organ player," Bianchi says. "In the past it was pretty simple, basic stuff -- some blues, some standards, all of them always grooving really hard. What Joey did was encompass all of that, everything that had been played on B-3, and take it a step further by playing every kind of jazz tune, from greasy blues numbers to the most complex kind of John Coltrane things." In DeFrancesco, B-3 aficionados can at once hear the left-hand bass lines and "feathered" bass pedals pioneered by Smith, the gospel roots of McGriff, the hardcore bebop of Patterson and the innovations of Larry Young, who first adapted the non-chordal, modal jazz of Coltrane and Miles Davis to the organ. They also hear complex, single-note lines and swift tempos that no other B-3 player has ever attempted.
"Joey's blown all the old expectations and supposed limitations of the instrument right out of the water," Bianchi says. "There's a lot to live up to when it comes to him, but I'll always use him as my benchmark. I don't know if we'll ever be peers, but he calls me his little brother."
Actually, Tuesday's organ duel will be just an intermediate step in Pat Bianchi's journey up the jazz mountain. For now, Denverites can hear him play percussive, highly inventive jazz piano on Sunday and Monday nights at El Chapultepec (in a longstanding, Laura Newman-led quartet called -- what else? -- the Chapultergeists). Closer to his heart, he plays hard-driving, complex Hammond B-3 every Sunday from 4 to 8 p.m. at B.J.'s Port, a glorious little place at 28th and Welton streets that recalls the raucous, energetic organ-trio clubs of Jimmy Smith's prime -- right down to the barbecued ribs and collard greens on the menu. Bianchi's fellow musicians at B.J.'s include a quick and fluent Boulder guitarist, Bill Kopper, the inventive, polyrhythmic drummer Tony Black, and singer Ed Battle, a Denver institution.
But those sessions won't last forever. At the end of August, Bianchi is moving to dog-eat-dog New York to try his luck in the big leagues of jazz. "I feel the need to go, to learn from the masters, to try a whole different level of competition," he says. "I need to further my career. I don't know what will happen, but it's something I have to do. This is a time to be bold."
You can be sure of one thing: In spirit, at least, Joey DeFrancesco will be making the trip to the Big Apple with him.
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