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Multi-instrumentalist, bandleader and composer Joey DeFrancesco trades his traditional trio lineup for a quartet on the 2017 full-length album, Project Freedom, out now via Mack Avenue Records. With his signature Hammond B3 organ at the foundation of each arrangement, DeFrancesco and his band The People stretch out across genres. Pulling from the tried and true spirituals of the church, the freedom songs of American folk, the abiding sorrow of the blues and the swing of straight ahead jazz, they combine their talents to create a sonic ode to spiritual uplift that resonates immediately and stands as a resounding call to arms in trying times. Joey DeFrancesco explains what Project Freedom is and how it came to be.
Revive Music: Project Freedom opens with “Imagine” (Prelude) — a pretty emphatic statement about the tone of the record. That moves into the title track, which references a somber spiritual (“Go Down Moses”) before the band essentially throws off a burden and breaks out. What discussions were you having with yourself at the inception of this project and what role did “Freedom Songs” of the past play in it?
Joey Defrancesco: Everything you just said. There’s no question about the times that we’re in and things that have been going for many years. Musicians always express themselves through song. In jazz, in particular, but really any improvised music. There’s a lot of emotion in it, so whatever you’re doing and whatever’s going on in your surroundings, comes out in your music. Being traveling musicians, we’ve gone to places that were very risky to go to at certain times and we went anyway. Everywhere we play, no matter what was going on, people get the music and they feel it. They feel the sincerity of our wish peace and unity for everyone through the music. Nowadays, with much more of a public eye on things and the internet making people even more aware of all of the horrible things that are happening, I felt like I could take it a step further to bring more awareness and attention to the fact that people should be living in unity and peace with respect for one another.
RM: “The Unifier” is a song that rhythmically and melodically captures a number of styles — from jazz, blues and soul, to roots and drum & bass. It feels like a literal and figurative coming together that positions you as orchestrator. Was your goal with this project to unify sounds? People? What?
JD: All of those things. When the music and the melody come to mind, that was what was in my head. The tune goes in so many directions within itself, but it is also like a big warm hug. It starts with a funky “come on over” type of vibe, then there’s a mystical second part where you imagine people feeling each other out and getting to know one another — questioning each other. Then there’s the next part and it comes back together like, “We’re all cool. We’re all together.” You feel that in the music and that’s how it ends.
RM: Your instrument of choice for the duration of Project Freedom is the Hammond B3 organ. How much did the history of the instrument as a major component in songs of uplift and resistance play into the decisions you made about the direction of the project?
JD: I’ve been playing the instrument for so long. I’ve been playing for 42 years, so it is part of me. An organ is a very spiritual instrument. That’s why it is used in churches and things like that. It is the perfect vehicle for expression — just like every instrument is — it is like having an orchestra at your fingertips. You can also make it sound almost like voices. It is kind of unlimited in what you can do. That all makes it an important part of the music. You can explore so much and go in so many different directions with it. I’m playing all of the bass on this project. I’m playing with my left hand and my foot. That guides the harmony. The cohesiveness of the band as a unit is another big component — everybody is on the same page with respect to what the project is about. Much of that comfortability comes from being together and playing constantly, because we all travel together on the road. So, the sound of the organ is a major part of that style of music and of me. It’s really a big part of everything I do, but it really lends itself to some of the material on the project as well.
RM: Can you talk about the spiritual undertone of Project Freedom and how that is reflective of your life at this point?
JD: I’ve always lived that way. Music has always had a huge effect on me, spiritually. Everybody has certain things that they like to listen to and that becomes the soundtrack of their lives. All of those things tie into the spiritual aspect of it too. Some music makes you feel more than others. It all is an emotional rollercoaster of good, beautiful things — but also things that resonate in a sad, respectful, emotional kind of way to make you reflect and pay homage to certain situations. That’s the way I like to live my life. I always have. I love different cultures and the music from those cultures. I like to learn things. It all blends into one big, beautiful thing. I would just like everyone to see that. I know that’s the goal for a lot of people, but if I can just get 5 or 6 more people to see that, it’s better than nothing.
RM: How important were the musical traditions of the church as well as American folk and blues to the composing and creative process?
JD: Very important. That’s important on every project I do because it is the basis of what I do. Really, it is the basis of all music. No matter what it is. The blues and the spiritual aspects combine with emotions and the sounds of everyday life. That all comes out in the music. It is a spiritual journey. It is an homage to life and people that face adversity. It is an encouragement to stay strong. There is a lot of negativity in the world, but there is a lot of positive too. Try to focus on that. Without offending anybody, I wanted to do what I wanted to do and I didn’t care about what anyone thought. There’s a lot of respect and love in the music. This is the record I wanted to make. The timing was just right to speak up and remind people to pay attention to what is going on in the world, but also to just be cool.
RM: Do you feel that the movement toward breaking with genre is important to the growth of music at this point in history?
JD: Definitely. Of course it is. All of those things are. That’s how a lot of music has come about over time — because of difficult situations and people getting through things by pulling from different sources of inspiration creatively. Music was developed and protected by mankind because it is something you can’t take away from people. Music and rhythm — people are always going to find a way. Everything that happens in your environment influences musicians. All of the things going on now are impacting music. There is music around us constantly. It evolves as an extension of the people. In these times, especially, we need as much as we can. We need something to make us feel good in order to focus on getting through a lot of the things that are happening. That will also make music evolve, because we are pushing the positive aspects of the human experience by innovating with the tools we have.
RM: How did your band, The People, come together?
JD: About two and a half years ago, I put the trio together with Jason Brown on drums and Dan Wilson on guitar. We start at the beginning of January 2015 with that group. We toured extensively and made a trio record called Trip Mode, which meant many things to us. After touring that entire year, this project started coming to life. With a lot of things happening in the world and our goal of gearing our music toward the work of unifying people, we started working. I wanted to do a little more than usual. I started thinking about it and I began to hear a fourth voice in the melody. That’s when we added saxophonist Troy Roberts to the lineup. Troy is a great addition to the group. We recorded a record last July 2016, then we toured the quartet in January of this year.
RM: How do they contribute to the mix, especially with respect to translating the themes that you explore in the project — things like peace, unification, resistance and transcendence?
JD: The stew was already brewing with the trio. We threw Troy in. The minds of the musicians are wide open rhythmically, melodically, spiritually — there are no limits. Everybody is listening to something different, every day, by the hour. You’d think we’re all listening to straight ahead jazz, but none of us are. We’re all listening to a variety of things from all over the place. It could be country. It could be hip-hop. Those influences come out in the music. They bring a lot to the table because they are so open. Sometimes they are ahead of me in their thinking and those are the types of groups you try to put together — people that have very open minds. We might go anywhere at any given moment and they have to be prepared for that. Dan learned to play guitar in church, which is a very integral part of the music we’re playing. Troy is from Australia. He’s been in the states for about 10 years. He is schooled in the tradition but he has an exploratory mind and an interest in using effects, which fits well with what we are doing. A lot of the things we are doing are things that have been done before. Music moves in cycles. Things go away for a while — certain styles of playing — and then you find a new avenue to innovate in a new way with the things on the shelf That influences people that might not have been paying attention to a certain style or sound the first time it came around. Then that informs the next thing.
RM: “One” in particular, conjures Miles Davis, who was an early mentor of yours. Can you talk about his role in your music, but also how his philosophy and spirit of exploration inform music today?
JD: He’s a huge teacher — Miles. I was fortunate to be around him at a very great period. It was the latter part of his life but he was in a good place, mentally. He had a clear mind. We could talk about so many different things. When I worked with him it was amazing. When I started playing with Miles I was 17, which is very young. I was already playing professionally for about 8 years before that, in and around Philly. When I saw how Miles was leading the band, I realized I was leading bands in a similar way. Obviously I was very young and didn’t have the knowledge Miles Davis had, but there was an immediate camaraderie because of that. The way he led the band and how he picked musicians was a big influence. Even if he had never played the trumpet, his talent at putting a group together was one of the greatest things that he did. Forget about his trumpet playing…he was one of the greatest to ever do it. He was beyond a trumpet player. He transcended the instrument to become a second voice. That is what every musician tries to do. He had a huge influence on me. I play the trumpet because of having been around him. That sound of his was the sound I wanted. I always wanted my own ideas on the instrument, but the tone is important. It also influenced my keyboard playing, because of the breathing involved in playing. It forced me to have a different respect for space. His approach to music is legendary. It influenced all of us. I was just lucky to be around him and have a personal relationship like that. It was pretty great.
RM: How do you feel about the project and its importance or potential impact at this time in history as so much violence and uncertainty underscores everyday life for people around the world?
JD: I hope the human concept of peace and unity is what people receive. That’s the goal, is for them to get a slice of that from the music. From anything that I do. This particular project is a wake up call. If you don’t understand anything about loving one another, hopefully this can help. Any percentage of positive change is good. That’s why anybody that can do a small part is important. When all of us come together, it just gets bigger and bigger.
Read the full piece from: Revive Music