by Raul da Gama
Greg Hatza’s name may not be the first one to leap to mind when, ordinarily, discussion turns to the organ, but among those in the know, his foundational knowledge of the blues explodes when his fingers touch the keyboard of the Nord C2D. On the aptly titled Diggin Up My Roots Hatza bows low as he doffs his proverbial hat to the grandmasters, Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff, as well as to vocalists such as Lloyd Price and Percy Mayfield and Ray Charles, to name but a few other icons of the soulful idiom of rhythm and blues. This album not only does away with the conventional ‘organ trio’ format which is frequently favoured by the restless fingers of men like Joey DeFrancesco, Jared Gold and others, but also adds to the guitar and drums, an additional lead voice in the form of the saxophone. Of course Peter Faize, who plays the instrument, is a foil to Hatza, who augments his organ playing with vocals that are soulfully rendered.
There are just eleven charts on this refreshing survey of rhythm and blues music and many of these songs from songbooks that remain undeservedly neglected. Hatza is a largely unheralded instrumentalist, but he has remarkable technical polish and command of the notoriously difficult instrument which he has cultivated through two strong albums and many performances of studied interpretations of organ classics. Cases in point are Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman and Jimmy Smith’s eternal classic Back at the Chicken Shack. On both Hatza’s tapered phrase endings, tiny breath pauses and occasional not elongations sound arch and mannered. Elsewhere Hatza is direct and follows a more songful ebb and flow, providing a softer timbre, in the process making the instrument sound suaver and more rounded in its sonority. All through the process, of course, Hatza infuses his playing with detached articulations and subtle harmonic stresses, both conveyed with admirable expressive economy and viscous notes.
Similarly, Hatza’s scrupulous authentic vocalising of rhythm and blues, and the balances between hands and vocal chords throughout this recording finds more animated reception from his guitarist Brian Kooken and saxophonist Peter Fraize, while the group’s drummer Robert Shahid holds down the rock-steady rhythm all on his own most times. Talk about having two sets of arms and you would be talking of Shahid’s ability to tap out a melodic line as well as keep time and tempo together all at once. However, the magical aspect of this album remains Hatza’s petulant arpeggios which inspire greater dynamism and dramatic thrust as the choruses’ heat up midway through each chart. The organist’s elegance and subtle tonal gradations particularly shine in Johnny Otis’ iconic piece Hand Jive; listen to how he appears to throw the introspective phrases away while moving over the bar-lines or the sense of weightless propulsion he generates in the churning rhythms of Lloyd Price’s Stagger Lee.
This is only the beginning of Hatza’s career and already he seems to have produced his finest CD yet, and one hopes that he’ll set down more keyboard works redolent in the quiet screaming of the organ in due course.