Jazz With A Lone Star Spin
Hammond B3 organist Eric Scortia – a mainstay of the Texas music scene and an omnipresent figure on the national and international tour circuit – has covered a lot of territory, not just geographically but stylistically as well. In the course of his career, he has developed a style that embraces jazz, blues, rock, funk, country and more, and distilled all of these sounds into a distinctive blend that has become his trademark on four solo recordings, dozens of session recordings with other artists and countless live gigs. Through it all, he’s earned the well deserved nickname of “Scorch,” due to a relentlessly burning attack that leaves an indelible and instantly recognizable signature on every song he touches.
His newest recording, The Tone Generator, is set for official release on Organ-Ized Records on March 30, 2010. Consistent with the eclectic approach that has become Scorch’s trademark over the years, The Tone Generator is an eleven-song set that borrows material from a number of well known songwriters representing a variety of genres and reshapes it via Scorch’s innovative sensibilities.
The songwriting credits on the album tell the tale. From start to finish, Scorch and his three-man crew reinterpret the works of artists as diverse as Charles Earland, Bobby Gentry, Aretha Franklin, Chester Thompson, Oscar Hammerstein and more – all of whose songs have made their way into the band’s live show in recent years.
“We’d been performing a lot of these songs in our shows,” says Scorch, “and it was just a matter of documenting a body of material that had become a very important part of what we’d been doing onstage. The recording process was very natural and quick. We went into the studio, set up in a circle to promote good eye contact, did a few mic checks, and in most cases, we played the tunes in one take. We finished it in a day.”
“We” is a group informally known as Eric Scortia and Vital Organ, a collective that is as diverse as the material they play. Guitarist Clint Strong, whose resume includes stage and studio work with Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, is a second-generation axeman who straddles the two very different worlds of country and bebop with no effort whatsoever. Tenor saxophonist Ivery Marchel, who passed away shortly after the album was recorded, had polished his jazz chops by playing with piano giant Red Garland in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Drummer Andrew Griffith, the relative youngster in Scorch’s crew, developed his chops via festival and studio gigs with B3 players Jack McDuff and Joey DeFrancesco.
The well-pedigreed quartet converges in a perfect storm from the very first riffs of the lively “Comin’ Home Baby,” a driving composition originally penned by Ben Tucker and Bob Dornough. Once the basic theme is established, Ivery wastes no time putting his formidable sax chops to work, followed immediately by Strong, who lays down licks that are silky smooth one minute and aggressive the next. Scorch himself ties it all up nicely with solo work that’s equal parts technical skill and hardcore groove.
The funky and syncopated “Black Talk” is the first of three songs on the album written by sax/keyboard virtuoso Charles Earland, the “Mighty Burner” of soul jazz whom Scorch considers among his primary influences. Other tracks from the Earland catalog appearing later in the sequence include the jazzy “Spinky” and the freewheeling “We Are Not Alone.”
Griffith’s straightahead beat and the elaborate solo work that surrounds it take Bobbie Gentry’s 1967 country hit, “Ode To Billy Joe,” and give it a decidedly R&B spin. Also drawn from the country well is a groove-driven version of “Son of a Preacher Man” inspired by Scorch’s brief meeting with actress Uma Thurman between sets at a gig in Austin in the late ‘90s, during his stint with saxophonist Johnny Reno and the Lounge Kings. The encounter reminded Scorch of the 1968 country hit for Dusty Springfield that figures prominently in the soundtrack to filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction.
“I got a chance to chat with Uma for a few minutes,” he recalls, “and the whole time, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m talking to Uma Thurman…’ A few days later, I just started playing around with the tune on the piano and came up with my own arrangement. We were playing it in our gigs by the following week.”
Scorch and company’s rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” is just as pulsing and intense as the Queen of Soul’s original recording in 1968, thanks to Scorch and Ivery moving in perfect tandem with Griffith and Strong, and then stepping out on their own exactly when and where the arrangement warrants.
The Tone Generator closes with an uptempo, light-hearted reading of the classic “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise,” a track that seems to move on air with no extraneous baggage to weight it down – a vibe that’s consistent with Scorch’s longstanding philosophy about music’s place in the universe, and his own place in relation to music.
“Music is like the wind, almost like a spiritual thing,” he says. “You can’t just grab a hold of it, you can write notes on paper, you can record a CD, but the music itself is all around us all the time. So if that’s the case, why limit yourself by saying that you’re just a jazz musician or just a blues-rock musician or whatever?”
Perhaps the single element that defines Scorch’s music is Scorch himself. “I try to put everything I do into the same blender that is the style of organ that I play,” he says, “and then just kind of lay it all out in a groove mode. I do it subconsciously, I guess, and that’s what makes it all fit together.”