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Exhilarating, cosmic, sublime: All come to mind when describing Breathe, the latest release from Hammond B3 organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith. The album marks the NEA Jazz Master’s third disc on Blue Note since his 2016 homecoming; the label cemented his legacy as a soul-jazz pioneer in the late-’60s and early-’70s.
Recorded mainly in 2017 during a week-long stint at New York’s since-shuttered Jazz Standard — billed as Smith’s 75th birthday celebration — Breathe is the blistering companion to trio album All in My Mind, recorded around the same time. The live sessions are enlivened by a septet comprising a robust horn section — John Ellis on tenor sax, Jason Marshall on baritone sax, Sean Jones on trumpet and Robin Eubanks on trombone — along with Smith’s longstanding trio.
Smith also finds magic in the studio by way of the album’s bookends, featuring an unlikely ally in fellow South Floridian Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk. The former Stooges frontman’s trippy, textured rendition of Timmy Thomas’ soul tune “Why Can’t We Live Together” poignantly kicks off the program, utilizing the unhurried phrasing of Pop’s lounge-inspired vocals. Donovan’s 1966 pop hit “Sunshine Superman” is infused with exoticism as Smith scribbles playful lines on the organ; tambourine keeps time and Jonathan Kreisberg’s groove-infused guitar sparsely sketches subtle lines that contrast with Pop’s unconventional baritone.
But the live set is the main event. “Bright Eyes,” a Smith original, rides a steady up-tempo groove with Johnathan Blake’s brilliant synergy behind the traps and lean brass coolly darting around Smith’s shimmering organ. “Too Damn Hot” rides a beguiling melody brimming with mischief. It sneaks up surreptitiously until Smith unleashes a crescendo of dizzying notes. A moment of abstract whimsy arrives by way of “Track 9,” which starts off with staccato drumming and is punctuated by playful time shifts and a sizzling solo by Ellis before syncopated interplay climaxes into frenzied free-flight.
Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy” closes out the live set. Smith’s trio inhabits the bebop master’s angular openness, offering a pulsating rendition anchored in Blake’s dynamic polyrhythms and accentuated by Kreisberg’s psychedelic guitar stabs and Smith’s breezy keys. — Lissette Corsa