Joey DeFrancesco | In the Key of the Universe

by Jeff Becker

DeFrancesco was born in 1971 in Springfield, Pennsylvania. Born to a musical family that included three generations of jazz musicians. He was named after his grandfather, Joseph DeFrancesco, a jazz musician who played the saxophone and clarinet. His father, “Papa” John DeFrancesco, was an organist who played nationally and received the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Living Legend Award in 2013.  Joey DeFrancesco began playing the organ at the age of 4 and was playing songs by Jimmy Smith verbatim by the time he was 5. His father John began bringing him to gigs from the age of 5, letting him sit in on sets. At the age of 10, DeFrancesco joined a band in Philadelphia that included jazz musicians Hank Mobley and Philly Joe Jones. He was considered a fixture at local jazz clubs, opening shows for Wynton Marsalis and B.B. King.

DeFrancesco’s career has been nothing but abundant.  Over the past 30 years, 4-time GRAMMY® nominee Joey DeFrancesco has proven his legacy as an organist. On his adventuresome new album, In The Key Of The Universe, DeFrancesco explores his spiritual side, tapping into the metaphysical side of jazz.  Joined by: Pharoah Sanders: tenor saxophone, vocals; Billy Hart: drums; Troy Roberts: saxophones, acoustic bass; and Sammy Figueroa: percussion the album explores a welcomed exploration of a different side of DeFrancesco’s music.

“Vibrations in Blue,” a DeFrancesco original offers a spacious and texturally middle eastern slant on the intro, replete with layers of meanderings and improvisations, until DeFrancesco signals the ignition of the beat, which is then driven by Hart. Roberts lays in searing work on the tenor saxophone with percussionist Sammy Figueroa adding a glisten to the track with several auxiliary percussion instruments.  As expected, DeFrancesco is divinely inspired.  His attack is muscular as he arpeggiates with clean harmonic mastery.

“And So It Is,” features the indelible Pharoah Sanders on tenor saxophone, who at 78 years young has not lost any of the intrinsic beauty in his playing. This time Roberts steps into the bass role and he and DeFrancesco colorize and support under Sanders stunning solo section.  Drummer Hart, a longtime collaborator of Sanders also propels the song with sophisticated textures in his accompaniment, adding in active lines, while at times punctuating in a delicate slow burn inflection, while at other times keeping the song tightly locked with a straight stick attack.  Together the ensemble respectfully colorizes the tune with interest and emotional abandon.

In The Key Of The Universe is a grooving soulful listen, DeFrancesco has always been a singularly independent thinking artist. An artist who’s always been deeply connected to the full history of jazz.  His innovative approach on this latest album highlights a devotional direction and who more fitting than a leading figure in the spiritual jazz era of the late 60s and early 70s than saxophonist, Pharoah Sanders. The inclusion of Billy Hart, who I might add played on Sanders’ album Karma in 1969 is effervescent.  DeFrancesco has created a lasting piece to his discography, it’s nice to see an artist exploring music that speaks to them, rather than what might be easily approved by the jazz industry as acceptable or deemed accessible jazz.  Isn’t that what true artistry is?

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