Jazz Album of the Week: Christian McBride and Joey DeFrancesco Reunite For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver

Sep 7, 2020

September 7, 2020. With Christian McBride, the question isn’t what can or can’t he do; the question is, rather: What hasn’t he done yet? On For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver, the latest from the Christian McBride Big Band (CMBB), the do-everything bassist teams up, incredibly for the first time, with another locally-sourced, larger-than-life contemporary jazz icon.

The icon is McBride’s oldest friend in music, organist Joey DeFrancesco. And, really, it’s not such a mystery as to why these two—whose friendship goes back to middle school—

hadn’t, until now, cut an album together; DeFrancesco’s facility for playing bass lines with his left hand and his feet has often obviated his need for bassists.

Still, with a history like theirs, a proper collaboration has been years in the making.

Each loved Hammond organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Wes Montgomery as students at Philly’s Creative and Performing Arts High School (CAPA); they wore out the grooves on 1966’s The Dynamic Duo and 1968’s Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes. Both albums feature full big bands, with immortal arrangements written by Oliver Nelson. These two albums, both recorded over the course of a couple days at the then-new Van Gelder Studios in 1966, became coming-of-age touchstones for McBride and DeFrancesco. So when it finally came time to play on a full album together, honoring these formative records was a no-brainer.

Hence, For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver.

DeFrancesco’s got the role of Hammond organ godfather Jimmy Smith taken care of—and then some. But the dynamic duo can’t be replicated without someone playing Wes Mongtomery’s part. For that outsize role, you need a guitarist who knows how to play and groove with an organ burner like Joey D.

Enter Mark Whitfield, who played on two late-career Jimmy Smith recordings with McBride before going on to record with Brother Jack McDuff and Pat Bianchi, the latter of whom is probably the most in-demand Hammond organist in the world right now not named Joey DeFrancesco. Though Whitfield’s name has curiously not been as consistently at the top of the marquee as one might have envisioned in the mid-’90s when he was releasing albums on the Verve label, these circumstances are optimal for him—blues-drenched organ jazz.

But by no means is this a one-note record.

At full strength, CMBB comprises 17 pieces, but McBride doesn’t bludgeon you into submission with 10 consecutive tracks of swing era brassiness. The full ensemble gets 60 percent of the burn, while the album’s other four tracks, spread evenly through the core of the proceedings, showcase McBride, DeFrancesco, Whitfield and drummer Quincy Phillips as a quartet.

In their pared-down permutation, rather than burning down the restaurant with dazzling pyrotechnics, the principals, instead, simply present three standards: “Up Jumped Spring,” “The Very Thought of You,” and “I Want to Talk About You.” Elegance and timeless simplicity; no superfluous embellishments or affectations to mask imperfections; prepared and served with refinement and the world’s finest ingredients. Perfection.

Their fourth tune in situ, a DeFrancesco original and cleverly titled homage to former Blue Note exec Don Was, “Don Is” cooks at higher heat and is emblematic of what McBride and co. have done so well in constructing this album: they anticipate where the listener will be mood-wise through certain of the record’s plot points and they adjust—or stay pat—accordingly.

Energy is high to start. A faithfully rendered take on Nelson’s arrangement of “Night Train,” leads things off. Those born after 1975 might most readily associate the Jimmy Forrest-penned classic with scenes from the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Back to the Future.

No matter where you come from this one’s an oldie, but the combination of CMBB with Nelson’s original arrangement sounds like a revelation, like the rediscovery of something priceless that’s long been hidden. McBride doesn’t just anchor this band; he actually drives its 16 other pieces forward. It’s truly awesome. And Whitfield’s no slouch here either; as long as it’s not ’80s glam rock we’re talking about, I’ll take him over Marty McFly any day.

Two out of the next three, like the opener, are reprisals from the aforementioned Jimmy Smith/WesMont collaborations. Montgomery’s “Road Song” and Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” both sourced in this case from Further Adventures, serve as the end pieces of a Freddie Hubbard sandwich—the round, loping, content-just-to-be-here-amongst-friends version of Hubbard’s classic jazz waltz “Up Jumped Spring,” played here by the stripped-down quartet, cuts perfectly against the two ambitious arrangements that bookend it.

“Road Song,” arranged for big band by McBride, is a clinic in guitar-organ two-man game. First Whitfield’s out front while DeFrancesco comps; then, after a brief soprano sax solo from Steve Wilson, Joey D’s out from while Whitfield fills. And once you hear Carl Maraghi’s baritone sax complimenting McBride in that lower register, you’ll agree that it’s indispensable to the tune’s success. It’s this one that confirms McBride’s feel for writing big band arrangements is something special—that probably has something to do with why CMBB’s first two albums won Grammys.

But the chemistry between guitar and organ might be even more apparent on “Milestones,” which finds the full band playing Nelson’s arrangement at a slightly faster tempo. Joey D. and Whitfield are as dialed in here as two organic beings can be without going full Avatar. Whether it’s Paul Bollenback, Pat Martino, Dan Wilson, or now Mark Whitfield, there’s no organist who vibes with, amplifies and augments guitarists better than DeFrancesco. And all due propers to Todd Bashore and Steve Wilson, whose respective piccolo and flute trills on the theme’s back-end amount to a colorfully accented feather in the hat being doffed Nelson’s way.

“Down by the Riverside” is the last tune sourced from the Van Gelder recordings. Though again working from Nelson’s charts, McBride and Co. are, by turns, cleaner, edgier and even stronger on the attack than their predecessors, led into battle by the heraldic bottom of Maraghi and Douglas Purviance, on baritone sax and bass trombone, respectively. This one’s also the most complex and muscular assignment for drummer Quincy Phillips; he makes his mark here, just as Grady Tate made his on this tune over 50 years ago.

After the CMBB horns conclude their prologue, you hear about two-and-a-half minutes of something rare and priceless, DeFrancesco’s organ and McBride’s bass as the two distinctly dominant instruments in the ensemble, with Phillips hanging back manning a tight hi-hat.

All of a sudden, it’s like the two Philly-bred giants are 15 again, just a couple of prodigies jamming inside a CAPA practice room, maybe waiting for someone with a license to drive them to a gig in Center City.

They were around that age when they conceived the rudimentary groove for the tune that’s, most appropriately, become the closer to their first full album as bandmates. They call it “Pie Blues.” If you listen closely, perhaps you can sense a latent puerile instinct or two bubbling to the surface, for just a moment. Maybe in Purviance’s unusually prominent bass trombone opening or Maraghi’s similarly extraordinary bari sax solo later on. That the fellas are so in their element here suggests that the boys will, indeed, always be boys.