The world is a less soulful, interesting, and spirited place without Dr. Lonnie Smith walking among us. I will leave the broader personal eulogizing to others better-suited, but since I’d already been working on this list I wanted to share it, both for some balm, hopefully, for the Turbanator’s fans and as a point of entry for this towering figure, NEA Jazz Master, and one of the great organists ever to walk the planet. I went for a variety of music here (both stylistically and chronologically) which slightly helped the impossible task of narrowing down the list. Dates listed are dates of recording, and I’m particularly conscious that I’ve under-emphasized his amazing output from the last decade or two when he finally got the visibility that he deserved all along. Hopefully this list serves to inspire at least some folks to make a deeper dive.
1 ) “Clockwise” from It’s Uptown by George Benson (1966)
Though not technically his first recording, this session by guitar whiz George Benson was what put Dr. Lonnie on the map in the jazz world. He, George and baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber all take fiery solos on this up-tempo face-melter, foreshadowing the substantial and multifaceted relationships all three would have moving forward.
2 ) “Aw Shucks!” from Alligator Boogaloo by Lou Donaldson (1967)
Save for an at-the-time-unissued track from a Benson record, this groovy riff-based tune was the first recording of one of Doc’s own compositions that I’m aware of. The album and funky title track were big hits and marked the recorded genesis of Doc’s partnership with maestro Donaldson, yet another longstanding and important relationship, as well as his incredibly grooving connection with drummer Idris Muhammad (then known as Leo Morris).
3 ) “Peace of Mind” from Live at Club Mozambique (1970)
Doc’s first tenure with Blue Note records is full of grooving, and this super-energized live record (released decades later) was the last of that series. There is some fast swing and a lot of backbeat, and this track features his endearing vocals on an anthem that remains relevant.
4 ) “Apex” from When the Night is Right (later reissued on later pressings of Afrodesia) (1975)
Just try sitting still for this Latin jam. The organ grooves like crazy atop the driving percussion, and there’s an extended saxophone solo by a very young Joe Lovano.
5 ) “Slightly Monkish” from Lenox and Seventh by Alvin Queen (1985)
This gnarly, swinging trio performance of one of Doc’s original tunes also features fiery guitar work from another of his frequent collaborators, guitarist Melvin Sparks.
6 ) “River Walk” from The Turbanator (1991)
I debated whether to include anything featuring Doc on non-organ keyboard instruments – his legacy revolves so much around the Hammond B-3, yet there are wonderful examples of him playing funky electric piano or clavinet as well as elegant piano. This original tune, also featuring bassist Buster Williams, is an example of the latter – the album is sadly out of print but this track can still be found on a compilation.
7 ) “One Foot in the Blues” from One Foot in the Blues by Johnny Adams (1996)
The great New Orleans singer Johnny Adams here provides us with an opportunity to hear Doc giving a clinic in how to play an authoritative, patient, yet exciting blues at a very slow tempo, aided by yet another of his longtime musical partners, guitarist Jimmy Ponder.
8 ) “Long Time Gone” from Late Night Talk by Hiram Bullock (1996)
Some of Doc’s latter-years fans come from non-jazz realms, and this track, a cover of a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song, is a great example of how well his organ work transcended genre. Between the organ intro, his accompaniment of Bullock’s singing and guitar (and a great Joe Locke vibes solo), and his own solo, his playing throughout is utterly perfect.
9 ) “Simone” from Jungle Soul (2005)
There is a ton of great music from Doc’s period recording for Palmetto Records. This clever reworking of a Frank Foster classic, buoyed by soulful guitar from Peter Bernstein (a collaborator dating back to their shared membership in Lou Donaldson’s band) and a filthy pocket from drummer Allison Miller, is one of my favorites.
10 ) “JuJu” from All In My Mind (2017)
Doc’s return to Blue Note Records strikes me as a heartening bit of full circle, not to mention a chance for further exposure for his last three records (including this year’s tour de force Breathe). This performance of Wayne Shorter’s classic gives us a chance to hear his last great trio (with Jonathan Kreisberg and Johnathan Blake) and his mastery of advanced modern jazz harmony and rhythm, just another way he busted the stereotype of what one can expect from a funky organist.