When organist Dr. Lonnie Smith released Evolution (Blue Note) three years ago, he added some noticeable twists to standard jazz formats. Mixing in new takes of standards with his own expansive compositions, he played with the sweeping groove that his fans would recognize when he recorded for this company in the 1960s and ’70s. But on some tracks he tweaked convention and used two drummers. Had he followed through on a vision he had decades ago, Smith would have taken that percussive idea much further.
“A long time ago, when I was first with Blue Note, I wanted to record with 40 drummers,” Smith said. “I just loved that sound. But it’s hard to fit that many drummers in the studio, it would be too much. They thought I was crazy, anyway.”
Not that Smith ever cared about such perceptions. He was part of a crew of organists who brought in gospel and R&B beats and repertoire to shape what was called soul jazz. But especially since the ’70s, Smith has quietly widened this concept through original works, some of which are multi-part suites, and occasionally feature contrasting rhythms. Comfortable with any sized format, Smith will perform with his trio on June 7 at Symphony Center, but he spoke just before a collaboration with the Dutch Jazz Orchestra of Concertgebouw. Smith, who composes and plays entirely by ear, lets large and small ensembles make room for him.
Smith’s journey in music began when he sang in his mother’s Buffalo, N.Y., church. A helpful instrument store owner gave him an organ, which he began playing at 21. Many of Smith’s early jobs included playing in local clubs for such R&B acts as The Impressions and Etta James. He adapted their bass lines for his own sound.
“I was listening to the R&B people, and I had to coordinate what’s right for me,” Smith said. “I would change the bass lines around because I don’t want to play it exactly like the records, anyway. I want it to be close, but I didn’t want to take away from them.”
As Smith brought that approach to groups with such guitarists as George Benson, he recorded his debut album, on Columbia, “Finger Lickin’ Good” (1967), at 24. Then saxophonist Lou Donaldson hired Smith to play on the hit “Alligator Boogaloo” (1967) and they have collaborated ever since. Today, Smith refers to Donaldson as “an angel,” but says that album could have turned out differently.
“Lou knew that I came in playing behind R&B,” Smith said. “Frankly, I wanted to do something else. I just wanted to play straight-ahead jazz, and he said, ‘Maybe after this one.’ But I loved everything about it.”
Since then, Smith’s albums, such as “Think!” (1968) and “Live at Club Mozambique” (1970), have included his twists on multiple sources, whether it’s a Sly Stone song or “Three Blind Mice.” More recently, he’s interpreted modern rockers Beck and the Eurythmics. Smith’s compositions on such albums as “Afro-Desia” (1975) develop gradually, and he used this open space to take listeners on a kind of journey.
“I go anywhere around the world just by playing,” Smith said. “I’m not talking about traveling by plane or bus, I’m talking about in the head, I’m there. I just go, play, and it takes you right there.”
Nowadays, Smith is one of the few organists from the instrument’s ’60s pinnacle who are still performing. A National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, he appreciates younger generations of musicians, but insists that just his instrument, its speakers and electricity provide him with a powerful feeling that makes him remain committed to his life’s mission.
“That vibration surrounds you,” Smith said. “You can’t explain it. An organ gives me all all of the Earth’s wonders. Sunlight, rain, rainbows, water, thunder, lightning — you have everything right there.”
Aaron Cohen is a Chicago-based journalist and lecturer. His latest book, “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power,” will be published in September by the University of Chicago Press.