March 8 2017 11:28 AM

Jazz tribute gives the Beatles a funky organ transplant

Organissimo (left to right: Lawrence Barris, Jim Alfredson and Randy Marsh) released “B3tles,” a Beatles tribute CD, this week.
Courtesy photo

It’s not easy to utter the name of Organissimo’s new Beatles tribute CD, featuring Lansing-based Hammond B-3 organist Jim Alfredson, guitarist Lawrence Barris and drummer Randy Marsh.

It’s spelled “B3tles” and pronounced “beethreedles,” like it rhymes with “Don Cheadle’s.”

Barris came up with the title.

“It’s so bad, it’s good,” Barris said. “What else could we call it?”

Tuesday night, the chart-topping organ trio were set to play several tunes from their soulful Beatles homage at Moriarty’s Pub in Lansing, with more release parties in Grand Rapids and Clawson set for later this month.

After five CDs dominated by original compositions, a recent road trip took the trio on its first detour into cover territory since it started in 2001.

“For a long time, Beatles tunes were so sacrosanct, I didn’t think you could do a cover,” Alfredson said.

Driving to Michigan from a gig at a music festival in Tupelo, Miss., a few months ago, Alfredson cranked up a Beatle-thon and they all got carried away calling their favorite tunes. The Beatles have been hyped for so long as the greatest thing ever that it’s become easy to forget how good they really were.

“B3tles” includes funky organ trio takes on Beatles classics like “All You Need is Love” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Courtesy photo

“From a musical point of view, when it comes to melody, counterpoint and all that stuff, you can’t dismiss the Beatles catalog,” Alfredson said.

Beatles covers have a mixed history in R&B and jazz. Some, like Ella Fitzgerald’s “Hey Jude,” make you wince. Others, like Ray Charles’ “Eleanor Rigby” or Nina Simone’s “Here Comes the Sun,” are revelations. “Basie’s Beatle Bag” must have made eyes roll in 1966, when the Beatles were still happening, but 50 years later, it’s just plain fun to hear Count Basie’s swinging plinks and bright Beatles melodies go for a spin in the same vehicle.

When a studio executive put a sheaf of Beatles tunes in front of pianist Thelonious Monk, it was considered an insult to Monk’s artistry.

Volunteered tribute, however, is another matter.

Barris said he didn’t worry about how other Beatles covers worked or didn’t work.

“We just picked songs we liked and arranged them the way we wanted to,” he said. “It was really an artistic endeavor.”

“A lot of the tunes are compatible with improvisational musicians,” Marsh said. “They became standards.”

Lovingly crafted arrangements, combined with on-the-spot synergy at Alfredson’s home studio, helped the trio make the tunes their own.

“The tunes are radically different but still recognizable,” Marsh said. “You pick a song, jam around with it and see if it can be done with our chemistry, so it doesn’t sound pretentious or corny.”

“We didn’t slick them up for the sake of slicking them up,” Barris said.

Alfredson and Marsh bumped “Taxman” into a 7/4, James Brown-style groove instead of the straight-up 4/4 of the original. Barris contributed nuanced arrangements of “I Will” and “If I Fell.”

“‘If I Fell’ is such a beautiful melody, it just lends itself to a groovy swing,” Barris said. Alfredson added galloping buoyancy to an obscure favorite of his, “I Dig a Pony.”

“All You Need is Love” is more of a meditation than an anthem, with gentle harmonic tweaks that sound so right they might worm their way into your permanent mental map of the tune. Alfredson and Barris worked out the chord changes together.

“We stumbled on them, and we both knew, ‘That’s a cool re-harmonization. That’s way better than the original,’” Alfredson said.

“A good song is a good song,” Marsh said. “Lennon and McCartney are comparable with any great songwriters — Gershwin, Cole Porter.”

But Alfredson found there is a difference between playing a Tin Pan Alley standard in organ jazz style and tackling the Beatles.

“The Beatles were so closely associated with writing their own songs,” he said. “It’s one thing to improvise over a Cole Porter tune and another thing to take ‘Within You Without You,’ which is built around Indian instruments, and try to jazz that up.”

Not that it stopped them from trying. “Within You Without You” finds Alfredson in the role of Beatles producer George Martin, layering track upon track.

Alfredson asked Marsh to play Ringo Starr’s famous rhythm from “Tomorrow Never Knows” and a second track of “washy cymbals.”

“George Martin, in a sense, was like (arranger) Gil Evans was to Miles Davis,” Marsh said. “He added orchestrations, harmonies. The thing they did with multi-tracking, they were the first to really explore that. What Jim did with ‘Within You Without You’ was really cool.”

The climax sounds like a tsunami pushing a pinball arcade into a Gothic cathedral.

“If we’re out there doing concerts and somebody wants to hear it, I don’t know how we’re going to replicate that,” Marsh said last week.

Sure enough, they are being asked to play it live at CD release parties like the one scheduled for Moriarty’s Tuesday night. Alfredson has responded by importing the drone he created on a modular synthesizer for the CD to his digital organ, playing the melody over it, and taking off from there.

The CD’s packaging was crafted with almost as much care as the music. Alfredson’s idea for the cover, a collage of photos and caricatures based on the cover of “Revolver,” was a natural for Lansing artist Dennis Preston.

“He flipped out,” Alfredson said. “Who else could do it?” Promotion is the next challenge. The disc is already among the “biggest gainers” and “most added” on jazz radio nationwide, according to the Jazz Radio site, but why not take it to the source? Alfredson happens to know people who know Ringo and Paul.

“I’m going to sent them a bunch of copies,” he said.

Organissimo CD Release Parties

6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8
Centennial Room at Founders Brewing Co.
235 Grandville Ave. SW, Grand Rapids
Sponsored by West Michigan Jazz Society

9 p.m. Saturday, March 25
Black Lotus
1 E. 14 Mile Road, Clawson