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Steaming organ donors bring audience to life


Listening carefully to Randy Marsh play drums and watching him do it are two completely different activities. It's hard to do justice to both at once — like wine-tasting on a pogo stick.

Taking in the totality of Marsh was just one of the happy challenges awaiting the audience at the Creole Gallery last Saturday night. A generous double set by Organissimo, Michigan's premier organ-guitar-drums trio, proved a perfect showcase for one of the most intriguing personality triangles in jazz — rocket scientist, dreamy mystic and loose cannon.

Throughout the evening, Jim Alfredson sat stock still at the console of his Hammond B-3 organ, brows furrowed as if he were separating strands of DNA for a crime investigation. In a way, he was, because Alfredson's organ carries a host of genes from many of his distinguished predecessors. You can tweeze the lineage into dominant ancestors — spiky organ genius Jimmy Smith, cerebral stylist Larry Young and supercooker Don Patterson — and recessive ones, like soul master Big John Patton and ecstatic groover Charles Earland. But the gang was all there, mixed in such a way that the musical face is unique to Alfredson.

The organist is clearly at a point where he can pull anything he wants from his instrument, from eerie, flogging blues riffs to misty ballad atmospherics to the standard-issue, organ-trio bacon fry. When he launched into a simmering tune called “Patterson's People,” a man in the audience said, “I will have a heart attack.” (Alfredson muttered “Is there a doctor in the house?” without looking up.)

The organist's rigid concentration couldn't have contrasted more starkly with the Zen calm of guitarist Joe Gloss, whose delicate melodic gifts elevate the group over so many of its chicken-shack peers. Head gently bobbing, he seemed in no rush at all to get to the finish line, despite the sonic storms conjured by his two bandmates. One of his compositions, “Pre-dawn Rain,” merged tender balladry and organ-combo might with a command reminiscent of the most fervent “energy jazz” of the ‘60s and ‘70s (non-organ giants like John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner and Pharaoh Sanders were among the ghosts the group conjured up).

And then there's Marsh, whose complex, scintillating percussion work just doesn't jibe with his goofy, disheveled demeanor. To look at him, you'd chalk him up as a slightly less befuddled, much happier Brian Wilson. Close your eyes, and you hear the music of the spheres — inferred and explicit melodies, dead-on accents, mercurial polyrhythms, subtle shifts in timbre that split spectral hairs as finely as the color selection at Home Depot's paint department.

At one point, Marsh pulled out a little-used contraption Detroit drummer Roy Brooks used to call the “breathaphone” — plastic pipes through which air is sucked in and out of the drums, giving the kit the melodic capabilities of symphonic tympani. The odd spectacle of a hunched-over Marsh, tubes sticking out of his mouth as he hammered away, made the visuals even goofier, even as the music got richer and more beautiful.