Growing up in Philadelphia, organist Joey DeFrancesco sat in with Hank Mobley when he was 10. Word spread. He joined Miles Davis's band at age 17, went on to perform with John McLaughlin, Ray Charles, Elvin Jones and many others. A protégé and friend of the late Jimmy Smith, he has been at the top of the B-3 crop for 20-plus years, and now is the model for a new generation of players.

I caught up with DeFrancesco, 42, when he was in the middle of an East Coast swing with his band. We began our phone conversation by talking about the all-star quartet in which he will perform (Feb. 20-23) at the SFJazz Center in San Francisco. He's an easy conversationalist, down to earth, and, though he now lives in Arizona, you can still hear Philadelphia in every word he speaks.

Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco. Courtesy of Joey DeFrancesco.
Hammond B-3 organist Joey DeFrancesco. Courtesy of Joey DeFrancesco. ( cgee )

Q Joey, you've got this week of concerts coming up at SFJazz with a quartet: you, Bobby Hutcherson, Dave Sanborn, Billy Hart. That's a pretty unusual combination of musicians. How'd it come about?

A I was approached by Blue Note Records about doing a record with Bobby, who's wonderful. I love Bobby. We've played a lot. We've had an ongoing thing for about ten years. And as it turns out, Dave was on the record, too. And Billy Hart, the drummer, was suggested by me. He's perfect. Billy's one of those drummers who plays a very signature style, but he makes it works with anybody.

Q With Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders; it doesn't matter.

A Right. Not many drummers can do that. He's like a Roy Haynes. And one of Billy's early gigs was with Jimmy Smith, and Billy's on my second record ("Where Were You?" from 1990), and we've played together with Pat Martino. He's perfect.

Anyway, we made the record with Bobby last summer, and it's about to come out -- all originals, two of mine, two of Dave's and two of Bobby's.

Q You've always struck me as kind of a Freddie Hubbard of the organ. I get the feeling that you can play pretty much anything that occurs to you, and I don't mean that as flattery. I'm just wondering if you think about the extent of your talents.

A I know I'm not normal. Let me put it like this: I have confidence in my abilities; to play, you have to have that or you'd be scared to death. I mean, think about all the guys I've played with, all the situations I've been in. But I think everybody's got the certain thing that they do. I've got a very wide palette of musical interests and I've been fortunate enough to be able to explore them with different groups of my own. But I don't think in terms of how good I am. I'm always kicking my ass in terms of what I want to do. I've got so much to learn. It's never ending.

Q Are there things you hear in your head that you can't play?

A Not really. I think what it turns into is going after more rhythm and freer types of music. I love to swing: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the bebop era. But all those things are just notes, so it's about how you feel when you're playing them. I try to make everything mean something, and I keep trying to listen to more kinds of music, including what's going on nowadays. There's so much music out there. But I always return to my roots.

Q What have you been listening to?

A Damn. I listen to so much different music. I love classical music. I love country -- good country, the old country music, like Hank Williams, Sons of the Pioneers. And that makes sense. Cats like Sonny Rollins played "I'm an old Cowhand." And I hung out a lot with Jimmy Smith, and he used to watch all these old western movies. His generation grew up with that. My generation grew up with Michael Jackson, so it makes sense that I made an album of Michael Jackson music ("Never Can Say Goodbye: The Music of Michael Jackson," from 2010).

I'm 42 now, and I try to listen to musicians who are younger than me, like Robert Glasper. I think he's about 35. He's adding a lot of elements of R&B, modern R&B -- because old R&B was one of the first things that made me want to learn music, like Fats Domino. But Robert is adding the new elements, the Erykah Badu, and I listen to all that. But I think today's pop music isn't as harmonically sophisticated as it might have been even in the early '80s: tunes with chords and structures. You don't hear a lot of that, though Justin Timberlake -- he's got that.

So I try to listen to everything, though I'm still stuck on John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Miles.

But let me go back to that other question -- about playing whatever you hear in your head? You get to the point -- I remember talking to Miles about it -- where you can play anything over anything, any note over any chord, and it's not a mistake; it's what you meant to play. You want to get to that point of having total harmony and knowledge. Somebody like Herbie Hancock is unbelievable, or Wayne Shorter. The knowledge they have harmonically is unsurpassed. So I'm always striving to get to some other level.

But I'm still into the blues; those things are never going to go away.

Q It seems like you're playing a bigger variety of keyboards these days.

A I'm a fairly young guy, 42. But I've been playing 38 years. That's a long time. So to keep interested, I'm playing the organ, but now I'm adding other keyboards, and I'm playing a lot more trumpet. And doing all that keeps me interested in the organ, too. You've got to stay interested.

Q Lonnie Smith must be about 70. The last time I saw him, he was experimenting with new keyboards and instruments -- there was some kind of new synthesizer/percussion stick. Right on the gig, he was trying it out, and it sounded great.

A Sure, the grits and gravy, the meat and potatoes, are still there. But you add to it.

Like with the technology, I've always been interested in that. That's been a big part of my era, all the keyboards and synthesizers. I've always been aware of that, but then I kind of shied away from it and stayed strictly with the organ. Now I like to have some Fender Rhodes, an old Wurlitzer electric piano. I may want to add some strings; the sound of a string quartet. And the way the technology does it now, they sound so darn good and authentic -- it makes it fun. It keeps a very musical thing happening; you don't have to hear the same thing all night.

Q Give me some adjectives; how do you describe the sound of the B-3 organ?

A It's just a very -- no pun intended -- a very organic sound there. It's percussive, but it's very mellow too. Its very pristine, crisp -- but it can growl. It can do anything. It's the extension of the person playing it. There are a lot of human elements going on there. And you almost feel like it's an orchestra, a whole orchestra that you've got there. And it works for rock, jazz, even country. It's the one instrument for all the genres.

Q How about if I name a bunch of B-3 players, and you give me a sentence to describe each one?

A I'll try.

Q Tony Monaco.

A You're taking me by surprise. He's got a good sense of the organ sound, a throwback to the old guys, that bluesy kind of playing.

Q Rhoda Scott.

A Oh, yeah, Rhoda. She's got a churchy kind of a mixture -- of church, blues and jazz elements in there.

Q Booker T. Jones.

A He's funky. That whole thing started with "Green Onions." People have been going after that forever; it's a huge thing. By now, a lot of people may know this about "Green Onions": That was a Hammond organ he was playing on that track, but it wasn't a B-3. It was an M-3, which is a very small spinet version that they were making at that time. (The tune was recorded in 1962.) And he didn't have a Leslie speaker.... I would put him in the category of the funky R&B sound.

Q Charles Earland.

A "The mighty burner," they called him. He wasn't a very technical player. He didn't have tons of harmony. But he had tons of groove and excitement and feel, and I'd rather see somebody like that than somebody with a lot of technique that can't groove. His thing was all about cooking.

Q Larry Young.

A He had a different approach; well, Jimmy (Smith) was already doing a lot of things that Larry was doing. But Larry went in another direction, a freer direction. So he opened a lot of doors for organ players to take that direction, but still had the basis of the blues in there. That's why somebody like him was great for innovation; he still had tradition in his playing, but then he took it to another place.

Q Jack MacDuff.

A He was my man. He had a lot of taste in his playing. I think his biggest thing was he had the best arrangements of any organ group that there was in that era. A very well thought-out and well-written, happening arranger -- a great arranger and a great player at the same time, very tasteful.

Q I might as well ask you about Jimmy Smith.

A Jimmy, he's the greatest. Jimmy is like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie. He was the innovator to let everybody know what kind of stuff you can do on this instrument, with the bass line, with the left hand, with the accenting with the left foot, whatever it was, plus playing in different styles, like the Erroll Garner style on the organ, or playing single-note lines. The different sounds that he got -- it was amazing, especially in the early days.

And after that, you have Jimmy McGriff. He was more out of the church, a lot of "shout" sort of stuff. There was still a jazz element, but he had a little something else that made you want to start dancing. So he came out of Jimmy Smith -- well, we all do, I do. We all learn stuff and try to go to another level. Each generation should be taking things to another level; it happens very slowly. There's not a lot of trumpet players that play better than Dizzy or Miles or Clifford Brown, but slowly things evolve, and there are always people who stick out, over time.

Q Who's sticking out now on organ?

A There's a couple of young guys around. There's one guy -- I can't remember all their last names! I heard this one guy one night when I was hanging out in Toronto; we went and heard this guy, Brian something. Brian Charette! And there's a young kid in New York, mostly plays piano, but also organ: Emmet Cohen. And you've got a guy out there in the Bay Area; what's his name?

Q Wil Blades?

A Oh, I like Wil a lot. But I'm thinking of someone else.

Q Kevin Coehlo? I just heard about him. He goes to Stanford.

A Oh, yeah, yeah. They all play like me, though! It feels great. Because when I was coming up, it was always about "Joey DeFrancesco, the new Jimmy Smith!" And now -- you can't imagine how it feels to influence a generation of players like that. It makes you stand tall; a whole generation is coming up that's basing itself on that. And what it's done now is, it's upped the ante. If you're going to play the instrument now, you've really got to play it. There was a time, if you had a nice groove and a little bit of a funky feel, you could make a record. It's a different thing now.

There's another kid in Italy, Leonardo Carrieri. He plays really good. There's a bunch of them in Japan, including a lot of Japanese ladies, who play really good, like Akiko Tsuruga and Midori Ono. The organ is very much alive. I encourage it; this is very important, this is how you keep an instrument alive. It's got to stick around. Oh, there's a guy in Chicago, Peter Benson. I like him a lot, too. And I have a student in Kansas City, Eric Kaplan. He's like 19, and he really can groove. Usually with young guys that age, they want to play fast; whenever I'm there, he wants to play a nice medium groove. That shows a lot of maturity at that age.

Q Are you doing much teaching?

A Not a whole lot, a little more than I used to. I have more down-time -- by choice.

Q I've been noticing all these organ groupies, who follow B-3 players around, like they're following the Grateful Dead. Are you aware of them?

A Oh, yeah. There's also just the whole thing where they're so interested in the technical part of the organ. There's got to be a dozen mailing lists about this, and I'm not involved with any of them.

Q Very geeky, too into the equipment?

A Right. And the whole thing now is nobody wants to move a B-3 around. It's too heavy. I mean, I used to do a lot of it; actually, I miss those days. It was fun. But now they have these things called clones or "clonewheels," which is a play on the B-3 organ's "tonewheels." There's a lot of companies making them, even Hammond, which is actually Hammond Suzuki now. They have their own versions of the instruments. They're digital. They're smaller and a lot easier to move around.

Q What do you think of their sound? Do they ever match the B-3?

A The sound is there. It's hard to tell the difference between a lot of these. The biggest thing is the way this stuff feels -- the way it feels when you sit behind it and the way it feels beneath your hands. And none of these emulators are all the way there yet.

Q Is it hard to keep track of all the changes in the technology?

A You get people coming out to see what (instrument) you're going to play more than the music you're playing. Because when you went to see Miles -- who cares what trumpet he's playing? Who cares what saxophone Coltrane plays? In the end, it's the musical gift that they give. That's what you want to hear.

I remember the first time I saw Jimmy Smith, he wasn't even playing a Hammond. There was a German organ he was representing; it was a Wersi. In fact, I now own that organ that I saw him playing. Anyway, I got there that first time, and I remember saying, "Hey, wait, that's not a B-3." Well, he played about two notes, and that sound was there. It didn't matter because the sound was there, the sound of the master.

Q It's that innate thing; hard to explain it. I read an old newspaper story where your dad was talking about your ability to quickly figure out chord sequences when you were maybe 4 years old.

A It's hard to explain that. I don't know why. Why? It's something way beyond me. I just know that I'm able to do these things. It comes from some higher source, and it just gets channeled through me. What explains somebody's abilities? Everybody has a thing that they do. And when I think about it-- when I think about when I was younger and what I was able to do, it blows my mind. It didn't make sense. How was I able to do what I could do? But it happened.

Q I just wrote a feature story about Pete Fallico, the Bay Area jazz radio disc jockey, who's kind of the heart of the whole B-3 scene out here. I know you know him. What can you tell me about Pete?

A He loves it so much. He loves jazz, period. He loves Horace Silver, which is why his record company is called Doodlin'. (Pianist Silver recorded his tune "Doodlin'" in 1955. Shirley Scott covered the tune on B-3, and so have other organists, including John DeFrancsco, Joey's father.)

He's made it possible for a lot of guys who weren't able to record for a lot of years, or who've never even been heard of -- he's made it possible for them to make an album. He's become a historian of the instrument. He owns five or six organs -- and he doesn't play. But he just has such a love of the idiom.

When I first met Pete, he came and did an interview with me at the old Kimballs in San Francisco. I saw that he was really involved in meeting all the cats, and I started asking him to emcee things. Pete became the go-to guy for organ, for liner notes. He took it and ran with it.

I know Pete really well. And when he came to Philadelphia in '92, he came over to my mother and father's house and we were hanging out. Everybody knows him, all the guys. I mean, guys go stay at his house in San Jose for a week, two weeks.

Q Have you ever stayed at his place?

A I never stayed there, but I've been there a million times.

He's got the Jazz Organ Fellowship, his foundation. He's one of the people -- we need about a hundred guys like Pete, who love the instrument that much. He's one of the main guys, in terms of his awareness of everything that has to do with jazz organ. And it's not about money for him. It's not.

Q What about for you?

A (Pause). This is what I do for a living! It's a little bit about money. But when it comes to the art part, I'd be doing this no matter what level of success I was able to achieve. I was very fortunate. I've been able to achieve a lot of success. But no matter what level I'd gotten too, I wouldn't be doing anything else. I was born to play this instrument. I'm here for a reason.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Bobby Hutcherson, David Sanborn, Joey DeFrancesco and Billy Hart

When: Feb. 20-23
Where: SFJazz Center, 201 Franklin St. (corner of Fell Street), San Francisco
Tickets: $25-$75; 866-920-5299, www.sfjazz.org