March 11, 2019. In Philadelphia, we hold a few important truths to be self-evident, this being one: Joey DeFrancesco is the best Hammond B-3 organist on the planet—strike that, in the universe. On his cosmically oriented new album, In the Key of the Universe, Joey D. taps into the astral sounds of the cosmos, paying homage to those who first dared to explore jazz’s outer reaches.
Along the way, he employs the divine assistance of a Pharaoh who knows a thing or two about karma and the music of spiritual transcendence we’ve come to call “Free Jazz.”
Pharaoh Sanders, a Free Jazz founding father, lends his Coltrane-inspired “sheets of sound” to three tracks here, exactly 50 years since the release of his own seminal contribution to Free Jazz, Karma.
Rounding out the core group here are the legendary Billy Hart, the drummer not only on Karma but also DeFrancesco’s Where Were You (1990), and saxophonist Troy Roberts, who plays soprano, tenor, alto, and even acoustic bass—though not all at once; that’d be a record.
Leading off is “Inner Being,” a groover’s groove that opens with Roberts channeling Grover Washington, Jr. with a velvety pronouncement on soprano sax: things are going to start slow but quickly get funky. Roberts and DeFrancesco run a deft two-man game, trading leads and filling for each other with gorgeous harmonies. But it’s their precision playing in unison that’s most impressive.
The same goes for their interplay on “Awake and Blissed,” where Roberts, here on Tenor, and DeFrancesco run complex, athletic lines with the precision and synchronicity of Olympic diving pairs.
“It Swung Wide Open” merits mention because it’s here where Billy Hart’s abilities are most prominently highlighted, and it will almost certainly call to mind “Boogie Stop Shuffle” for the Mingus fans out there.
“The Creator Has a Master Plan” is Pharaoh’s time to shine and, indeed, like the Egyptian kings, he plays with the authority of divine right. At eleven minutes, this version is one-third the original’s length but still symphonic and mesmerizing. The second movement, in both its bass line and vocal interlude, is very much redolent of “A Love Supreme,” which is not surprising given Trane’s well-known influence on Pharaoh.
Pharoah returns for both the title track and “And So It Is,” the latter of which features DeFrancesco on both organ and trumpet. DeFrancesco and Pharaoh trade licks on trumpet and tenor sax, respectively, and then play their horns in unison, making for some of the album’s most poignant moments.
Matt Silver is a writer, radio host, recovering J.D., and jazz fanatic whose own saxophone playing can most aptly be described as somewhere between not altogether hopeless and delightfully adequate. He lives and works in Philadelphia.