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Top 10 Jazz Organ Tracks

I love the sound of the Hammond B-3 organ. The thump of an organ bass line, the grit of the Leslie speaker and the screaming quality available from the melody lines all communicate something unique that I really dig. When I studied with Kenny Barron back in the ‘90s, I devoted a lot of time to learning to play left hand bass lines and coordinate them with soloing – he never taught me this, but I watched, listened, imitated, and put it to practice on many occasions when I had to perform without a bassist. It was sobering, then, as I realized (and rediscovered more than once) that a love for the organ and the capacity to coordinate a bass line do not equal organ fluency! Far from it, in fact. This instrument is a beast! In spite of the daunting challenge, I have been dusting off my organ chops (such as they are) recently, and that has led me back once again to the classic organ jazz repertoire.

As with many of these lists, some of the omissions were painful, from old-school greats like Jimmy McGriff, Dr. Lonnie Smith and Johnny “Hammond” Smith to more contemporary players, including some like Radam Schwartz and Gary Versace who’ve been personally generous to me with their guidance. Also I wasn’t sure whether to evaluate based on the whole track (e.g. “Top 10 Jazz Tracks Containing Organ”) or the organ playing itself (e.g. “Top 10 Jazz Organ Performances”) so I’m going to be evasive and

1 ) Jimmy Smith “Organ Grinder Swing” from Organ Grinder Swing

Um, who did you think would be #1 on this list? This track is quite short, but honestly my backbone is shimmying as I sit here and just THINK about it. Grady Tate and Kenny Burrell swing like the dickens as well.

2 ) Larry Young “If” from Unity

If Jimmy Smith was the Charlie Parker (or maybe Bud Powell) of the organ, then Larry Young was its Coltrane (or maybe McCoy Tyner). Or something like that. In any case, I was tempted to try to pick a more obscure example of Young (a.k.a. Khalid Yasin) but this album is just SO FREAKING BAD. You don’t have to even like the organ to dig this, as long as you like the modern sounds of Elvin Jones, Woody Shaw and this song’s composer, Joe Henderson.

3 ) Richard “Groove” Holmes “Misty” from Soul Message

It’s no accident this was a hit single in 1965. The bass lines here are incredible, and this essentially set the stage for the Charleston-laced hard swinging approach to pop tunes that became de rigueur for jazz organists. This is five-plus minutes of hard-swinging bliss.

4 ) Eddy Louiss “These Foolish Things” from Conference de Presse by Louiss and Michel Petrucciani

The obligatory “wild card” comes from this vastly underrated French organist. I have a bunch of his records and dig all of them, as well as his work accompanying Parisian musicians like Jimmy Gourley and Jean-Luc Pont and visitors/expatriates like Stan Getz and Kenny Clarke. This duo record with French pianist Michel Petrucciani is simply stunning.

5 ) Brother Jack McDuff “A Real Goodun’” from Live!

George Benson. Red Holloway. Slow, greasy blues. Brother Jack. Formulaic perhaps, but boy is this an effective formula!!

6 ) Charles Earland “More Today Than Yesterday” from Black Talk!

If “Groove” Holmes version of “Misty” introduced the technique of playing hard-swinging versions of pop tunes on the organ, this track is an all-time highlight of that technique and important in translating it to rock-era repertoire. The Mighty Burner (as Earland was called) indeed burns here, as does a young Melvin Sparks on guitar.

7 ) Don Patterson “Theme From the Odd Couple” from Genuis of the B-3

Patterson is purportedly the “bebop guy” on the organ. Whether that’s true depends on your point of reference (he doesn’t really play more bop vocabulary than Jimmy Smith, as far as I can tell, but there’s a lot more harmonic variety than in more typical soul-jazz organ), but regardless of labels, this guy could play like a motha’. Sadly, much of his output is out of print, so if you’re going to seek something out, I’m quite fond of this quartet session with Freddie Waits, Eddie Daniels (on saxophone, before he became known as a clarinetist) and one of my formative mentors, Ted Dunbar, himself a veteran of many organ-based groups, from Gloria Coleman’s group to Tony Williams Lifetime.

8 ) Shirley Scott “Tain’t What You Do (It’s How You Do It) from Let It Go by Stanley Turrentine

Though Stanley Turrentine’s marriage to Shirley Scott didn’t last, their music together has certainly endured! Scott had a wonderful, soulful sound that was significantly different from that of most of her organ-playing contemporaries, both in her typical use of a bassist in her groups and in the way she manipulated the sounds of the organ. Her name is not mentioned nearly often enough, but she was a real giant and this is merely my favorite among many irresistible tracks she and Turrentine cut together, in addition to her great work with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.

9 ) Larry Goldings “Silence” from Wake Up (To What’s Happening) by Matt Wilson’s Arts and Crafts

I hemmed and hawed a bit about including anybody from the more modern strain of organists, and ultimately decided that a) I’m not gonna lie, I loves me some Larry Goldings and b) I love the sound of grits ‘n’ gravy organ as much as the next guy (and quite possibly more) but am also glad for the sonic innovations by Goldings and those who have followed him. I find Goldings’ more traditionally “soulful” playing to be great as well, but this is a lovely example of his more sonically adventurous work (as is the “Meditative Reprise” of Tony Williams’ “There Comes A Time” from the same record).

10 ) Don Pullen “In the Spirit” from Shakhill’s Warrior by David Murray

I first heard Don Pullen on a Maceo Parker record from the early 1990s, playing organ playing and it was a little while before I realized that a) he’s primarily known as a pianist and b) he’s primarily known for playing stuff considered avant-garde. Goes to show something about labels, I guess. As a pianist, he’s a huge influence on, but I love his soulful organ playing and don’t find it to be out of character, considering how much soul is in much of his other work. On this record he and fellow “avant-gardist” (quotes intentional) Murray lay back and take it to church.

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  1. Good list! I firmly believe “Soul Message” by Richard Groove Holmes is the finest jazz organ lp of all time. Six perfect songs including Misty as mentioned above. I’m a big fan of “More Today Than Yestersday” by Charles Earland as well.

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