In 2018 Iggy Pop recorded two covers for an upcoming album from soul jazz pioneer Dr. Lonnie Smith up. At first, the punk icon couldn’t quite find the groove, said guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, who was in the studio that day. Then something clicked.
“Suddenly, in the middle of the setting, it just started to sound really in my pocket and had all that energy,” recalled Kreisberg. “I turned my head and looked through the control room glass at the room he was in, and he had his shirt off. He had become Iggy Pop. “
Pop’s cover of Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” and Timmy Thomas “Why Can’t We Live Together” will be released on Blue Note Records on Friday in Smith’s joyous, intimate “Breathe”. The remainder of the album, which includes a four-part horn section, guest voices from Alicia Olatuja, and a reconfigured tune from Thelonious Monk, comes from a week of appearances at New York’s now-closed Jazz Standard, a run that doubles as the 75th birthday celebration for “Doc.”
As he nears 80, Smith is just doing what he’s always done: working together, arranging, and playing the organ with a restrained virtuosity that brings the feeling of lightning. Not much has changed since he released his first album “Finger-Lickin ‘Good Soul Organ” in 1967. But Smith still finds new listeners – including a well-known rock star. And his organ hasn’t lost an ounce of soul.
Originally from Buffalo, NY, Smith started playing the organ when a local instrument dealer gave him a Hammond B3 as a gift. The music of Jimmy Smith and Bill Doggett found him at the same time.
“I just loved the sound of the instrument,” said Smith, who currently lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in a telephone interview. “It’s an orchestra. It’s a bass. And it’s a soloist. I mean you did everything right. “
Smith moved to New York City in the mid-1960s and began recording albums by guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Lou Donaldson. His LP with Donaldson – most notably “Alligator Bogaloo” from 1967 and “Everything I Play Is Funky” three years later – became part of the foundation of soul jazz, an ecstatic, organ-heavy subgenre that fused jazz with funk and R&B. Despite a plethora of good organists in the 1960s – Smith’s contemporaries included Shirley Scott, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Reuben Wilson, and Jimmy McGriff – Benson and Donaldson chose Smith. You still stay in touch; Donaldson visited and Benson had called two days before this interview.
“I liked the feeling, and you must have liked the feeling, too,” said Smith. “I guess. We had a ball when we played. You feel at home when you play with certain people. And that’s a great thing. Because everyone sounds good but they don’t feel good. Or they don’t play well together That’s the thing about music. “
It was around this time that Smith began recording his own albums, including a quartet of classic releases for Blue Note between 1969 and 1970: “Turning Point”, “Think!”, “Drives” and “Move Your Hand”. (Smith left the label in 1970 and returned in 2016.) His version of Blood, Sweat & Tears’ “Spinning Wheel” was sampled by A Tribe Called Quest in 1990, and more recently the title track of “Move Your Hand” became a favorite of Pop.
“I kept hearing ‘Move Your Hand’ in my family in Florida, and the neighbor across the canal has cockatoos,” said Pop. “I played Barry White that day,” and the birds were calm. “But when I was playing ‘Move Your Hand’ they started screaming.” He laughed.
The relationship between Smith and Pop came naturally – Pop went to a Smith gig and they started talking. Pop later suggested the covers. He was a fan of “Why Can’t We Live Together?” Which Drake had sampled since its release in 1972 on Hotline Bling. And Smith had previously reported on “Sunshine Superman” in “Move Your Hand”.
“I like the way it sounded,” said Smith of Pop’s appearances on his album. “Of course. You know when people try to overdo it? Again? You don’t have to do that. He just did what he did.”
Pop, who will turn 74 next month, had previously worked with artists on the fringes of jazz, like bassist and producer Bill Laswell, but never with an artist so deeply rooted in tradition. And, true to the jazz form, there was essentially no rehearsal.
“I’d never done a proper jazz session before, so I was, you might say, my best demeanor,” Pop said with a laugh. “And, you know, we do that and then I would watch him, and that’s about it. With everybody. We didn’t really talk about the arrangement, just looked for clues. “
“Breathe” is technically the second time Smith and Pop have worked together. At the show they first met, Smith once took his DLS Electric Walking Stick, a Slaperoo reed and percussion instrument. Pop played it that night too, and a bond was formed over the most unlikely instrument.
“I played it through the audience and he was over there and I let him play it,” said Smith. “And we decided to do it. Do it together. And it worked. It worked. “