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Three of a kind

by Charles L. Latimer

In early 2000, the organ trio organissimo became part of a mini-renaissance of bands that emerged on the Detroit jazz scene with catchy names such as Bop Cultural and Urban Transport. The bands wrote and performed mostly original compositions and were democratic as well. Each member had equal status. The bands developed a loyal following, but save for organissimo , the other bands were constantly changing personnel, and eventually split up. But organissimo thrived. They seemed to possess a special formula the other bands lacked.

I heard organissimo two years ago at the famous Baker's Keyboard Lounge. The trio cast a spell on me I've been unable to break. For those who've never experienced the trio, here's how you can tell when they're about to cook like a family barbecue: Guitarist Joe Gloss shuts his eyes, drummer Randy Marsh turns his cap backward, and Alfredson slips of his shoes.

Months after that gig at Baker's, I interviewed Alfredson for an article the Metrotimes--a weekly newspaper in Detroit I've written for eleven years--published. I talked with Alfredson at his home in Lansing , MI . The organist is soft spoken and has the demeanor of an academic. If you encountered him in a shopping mall you'd never surmise he's one of the most soulful organ players working on this planet.

Alfredson and his wife had gutted the kitchen and were remodeling it. The organist and I talked at his dinning room table. While I questioned him, his daughter, nicknamed Sweetpea, set in his lap, and when she became restless she crawled under the table and tugged on her dad's pant leg. Alfredson talked about his influences, (bands such as Weather Report and Genesis) why he dropped out of Michigan State University to play music full-time, and how he met Marsh and Gloss.

After the interview, Alfredson showed me his home recording studio in the basement. CD's lined the wall. He played several tracks from the Root Doctor's album, a Rhythm and Blues band Alfredson plays in. He gave Gloss and Marsh's telephone numbers, and days later I interviewed them.

I recently exchanged emails with Alfredson. He explained the concept of the trio's new album, Groovadelphia, and he spent me an advanced copy. Like organissimo 's previous offerings This is the Place and Waiting for the Boogaloo Sisters, I liked Groovadelphia immediately and set up an email interview with Alfredson. He discussed why the trio stayed togethe, and why Groovadelphia is his favorite organissimo album.

organissimo have been together for eight years, and you guys sound more polished than ever. What is the secret to the trio's success ?

We work hard. And we have a genuine love of playing music with each other. We have our spats now and again, but at the end of the day we really enjoy playing together and writing together. I also believe that we are just different enough from each other, as far as our tastes, that we compliment each other musically very well.

How is Groovadelphia different than organissimo 's previous recordings?

It is the first album with just the trio and no special guests. It was also recorded in a very "old school" way, with everyone playing in the same room together. We couldn't go back and fix mistakes, we just had to play and if we messed up, we'd start again. It is also very collaborative. Almost all the tunes are written by the three of us together.

What does Groovadelphia mean, and who came up with the title ?

Groovadelphia is a tribute to Philadelphia , the jazz organ capitol of the world. We consider Philly our home away from home on the East Coast and we love the city, the people, and playing there. I think Randy came up with the name. We originally were thinking of doing a "suite", but it hasn't materialized yet. We might extend the idea over several records, kind of like the "Clap Yo Hands", "Stomp Yo Feets" motif across the first two albums.

What are some of the obstacles you guys encountered making Groovadelphia ?

My schedule with Root Doctor has been extremely busy and our biggest obstacle was simply finding time to play and write. We also knew that we couldn't afford to spend as much money making this record as we did the first two, so we decided early on to let me try and track it myself. I have been interested in recording for as long as I've been playing music and really the two have always gone hand in hand for me but it was an enormous technical obstacle for me to track the entire record myself.

How did the trio overcome the obstacles ?

We made good use of our downtime. We tried to have at least two rehearsals per month even if we had no gigs on the horizon. That way we'd stay tight and also have time to write together. And I had a lot of help on the technical side of things from my friend and Root Doctor band mate Greg Nagy and also from Glenn Brown , who engineered our first two CDs. And my wife is also extremely understanding! I had to kick her and my daughter out of the house while we tracked or else their footsteps would be heard from the 100 year old creaky floors above. My wife was even 9 months pregnant at the time! So she deserves a lot of accolades.

Six of the nine selections on Groovadelphia you co-wrote with Marsh and Gloss. Will you explain how you guys collaborate, and how important it is that each member shares the workload ?

The writing process on my end usually begins with coming up with a fragment or sometimes an entire chord sequence and melody and then getting together with Joe and either fleshing out a melody if one doesn't exist or refining what's already there. Joe usually takes the ideas home and refines them and brings them back to me and we further refine them together. We then present the tunes at a rehearsal and Randy suggests rhythmic and arrangement ideas.

Has there ever been a period when you guys contemplated splitting up?

No. We're having too much fun! What keeps organissimo focused and motivated?
We like writing music together, we like playing together, and we all have lofty goals for the group. We're confident that we have the right stuff to be on the world stage. We just need the right people to agree.

Were you guys able to spend more time polishing Groovadelphia because it was recorded in your home studio ?

Yes and it was a real treat. We were able to take each song and really break it down to the essence of the tune and build it back up. We could record it, take it home for a day or two and listen, and then gain perspective on how to make it better. That's just not possible in a professional studio unless you have a lot of money.We also don't really have any egos and we share ideas between each other very openly. If a part isn't working, we'll say so and no offense is taken. We try to do everything in service of the music.

How do you rate yourself among other noted jazz organists ?

That's a loaded question! I break jazz organists (and musicians in general) into two distinct camps: There are the stylists and there are the speakers. The stylists are those people that can play just like the past masters, but don't really have a personal voice. The speakers are those people that you know the instant you hear them because their sound on the instrument is unique to them. I hope that I am the latter. If I could compare myself to anyone, I hope it would be someone like Dr. Lonnie Smith. He isn't technically flashy, but he grooves incessantly and he tells a story with his music.

Is Groovadelphia your favorite organissimo album ?

Yes, it is. I feel like I improve as a musician every day and I am not only proud of how I played on that record, but also the production and recording aspect of it. I am also proud of my band mates because I think they really stepped up and overcame the technical and personal challenges to make this record. Joe sounds better than ever on Groovadelphia and Randy is constantly listening and reacting. It's very special and rare to find musicians like Joe and Randy to play with and I think we all recognize that. That's probably the biggest reason why we're still together. Why mess with a good thing? It's also my favorite because I think it makes a strong statement as a whole. So many jazz records are just a collection of tunes where they state the head and then you get solo after solo after solo, they re-state the head, and off to the next tune. There's no flow between the songs. My inspiration for this record was my love of bands like Weather Report and early Genesis and artists like Peter Gabriel, where you listen to their records and each song flows into the next and the record is a self-contained thing that beckons to be listened to from beginning to end.

How long did it take to make this album ?

Pre-production took over a year. I literally recorded every rehearsal I could and experimented with mic placements, different mics, different mic preamps, acoustic treatments, drum heads, Leslies, etc for over a year. When it came time to actually track the record, it took about 6 days, two of which were rehearsal days.

Was there any drama among the trio while recording Groovadelphia ?

Not really. We had some discussions on certain parts, but nothing out of the ordinary. No flared tempers or name-calling or anything newsworthy. We get along really well.