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Reviving the organ-based jazz of the '50s with a funky, danceable twist

Erin Schultz | for NOISE

The organist in Lansing's jazz trio Organissimo is Jim Alfredson. He plays a 1958 Hammond B3. He grew up listening to Jimmy Smith and Larry Young, the jazz organists that defined the music of a generation in the late '50s and early '60s. Alfredson's a master of that soulful, growly tone. His rhythm playing creates an infectious groove; his passionate soloing recalls the days of beatnik hipsters.

And he's only 27.

"In high school, I was into progressive rock like Pink Floyd and Genesis," Alfredson said. "I was just searching for something else at that point. The jazz organ opened up a whole new world for me."

The world of the Hammond B3 trio is sort of a cultish one, even in the broader scope of jazz. Jimmy Smith and jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell took the style to its height during the late '50s. Then rock 'n' roll hit and essentially buried that era of progressive jazz. Aside from people like Larry Goldings and Dan Wall, not many phenomenal B3 players exist anymore. Medeski, Martin and Wood is probably the most recognizable contemporary B3 trio out there, but even they smack of 1950s jive.

Alfredson said he wants to take the jive to a new level.

"We're not consciously trying to duplicate anyone," he said. "We'd like to do something a little more modern."

With their debut album, 2003's Waiting for the Boogaloo Sisters, Organissimo is on the right path. Almost every track is a combination of playful jazz experimentation, straight-up funk hooks and Randy Marsh's off-kilter drumming. With beautifully understated solos from New York saxophonist Ron Blake, a couple of moving jazz ballads from guitarist Joe Gloss, and bass lines from Alfredson's feet, the disc is an hour of pure contemporary jazz dinner music joy.

Live shows aren't all candle light and romance, though. Songs like "Clap Yo' Hands" and "Blake's Shake" get people moving. The band also covers some crowd-pleasing jazz standards during most performances.

"We like to get the audience involved," Alfredson said.

Mason native Alfredson got involved in the jazz studies program at MSU during his time as a telecommunications major in the mid-'90s. He met guitarist Joe Gloss, 32, in a jazz combo program in 1996. Gloss was from Mason, too. Alfredson had no idea.

"My older sisters knew him, but I didn't," he said. "I guess he was a metalhead, playing Metallica at talent shows."

The two formed several trios, writing what would be Organissimo songs but going through several transient drummers. In the meantime, Alfredson joined Lansing blues stalwarts Root Doctor in 1998 for some bread-and-butter weekend gigs. He met veteran local drummer Randy Marsh in 2000 through Root Doctor guitarist Steve Frarey, and the Organissimo trifecta was complete.

Renowned New York saxophonist Ron Blake had wanted to record with Alfredson and Gloss since working with them at MSU in 1997. He had an opportunity during the making of Waiting for the Boogaloo Sisters.

"He flew in to teach at MSU, and we only had two tunes," Alfredson said. "But we said 'We've got to get him on our record!'"

The result is some fantastic music. With their slick, critically-acclaimed CD and polished live show, Organissimo has played all sorts of pubs around Michigan, and they opened for Herbie Hancock last October at the Jazz Holiday Festival in Clearwater, Fla. Alfredson wants more gigs like that.

"We had roadies," he said.

Although he loves to play the bars, especially the laid-back Founders in Grand Rapids (to which their CD artwork pays tribute), Alfredson said Lansing is really lucky to have a place like the Creole Gallery.

"People actually listen there," he said. "We can play some stuff that we can't play in the smoky bars. We can be more introspective."

And as for the future of Organissimo, the young man with an old instrument keeps an open mind.

"We haven't gotten away from the trio format yet, but I'd like to add some electronic percussion and effects eventually."