Jamming with aliens 

Organist Jim Alfredson and guitarist Joe Gloss first crossed paths back in 1997, and it was rapport at first note. But it took another three years of genre shifting and lineup changing for their group, Lansing-based organissimo, to shape its unique sound.

Alfredson joined Gloss' old fusion outfit, Semi-Gloss, which then went through a number of names and drummers until a friend hooked them up with Grand Rapids drummer Randy Marsh. Marsh had more than a little experience in the organ trio format. Two decades older than then-twentysomethings Alfredson and Gloss, he'd played with organ titans Jimmy McGriff, Shirley Scott and Lyman Woodard, not to mention with former Basie sax man Jimmy Forrest. And he was a second-generation jazzman to boot. His dad had played with Stan Kenton and Quincy Jones; his mom was a jazz singer.

"He came over and played a blues, and from the first downbeat, Joe and I looked at each other knowing that this was the guy," Alfredson says of that first meeting. For his part, Marsh recalls that 14 tunes later he knew "those guys aren't from Planet Earth. It seemed like they came here on a UFO and was dropped off."

And that's how Marsh joined forces with the aliens. He disbanded his old trio in Grand Rapids, and a new one was born. They started playing out of the traditional organ trio songbook, but they've graduated from old-school to something else, a perfect blend of funk, jazz, rock and soul. Since Alfredson and Gloss come from musical backgrounds that range from rock to bluegrass, maybe it's not surprising that their group is trying to find its own way. The standard repertoire has been largely replaced by a bonanza of up-tempo originals with titles like "Ray Charles Goes to Washington" and "Stomp Yo' Feets," though their take on Frank Zappa's "Peaches en Regalia" says more than a little about their sensibility as well.

The tunes are collaborative concoctions, the guys say. Where Marsh hears his younger bandmates as otherworldly, they think of him in sci-fi terms as well.

"Randy is the mad scientist of the group, he's back there mixing up this big pot of stuff," says Alfredson. "Joe and I tend to write the main part of the compositions — the melody and the chord structure — and Randy will come in and add some strange rhythmic element."

Perhaps most important, though, is the way these parts mesh. Marsh is volcanic; Gloss spins out silky melodic lines on guitar that are reminiscent of John Scofield and Pat Metheny; Alfredson weaves an exquisite fabric of chords. And they bring these sounds together as if communicating through some sonic ESP.

Besides finding a sound, they're also finding an audience. Their self-produced records — Waiting for the Boogaloo Sisters and This is the Place on their Big O label — have garnered good reviews in places like Cadence magazine and done well on the CMJ chart and others — "up there with Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell and Ron Blake," says Alfredson with pride.

They hit the road often to tour the Midwest and Eastern states. Last December, when they pulled into Chicago's famed Hot House, Chicago Tribune's esteemed jazz critic Howard Reich noted that Alfredson's organ playing builds on the harmonies and colors of the great Jimmy Smith "while avoiding comparisons to the master's brilliant technique."

Reich continued: "Alfredson and organissimo ... draw an audience's attention with the vivid character of their compositions and the unerring precision of their ensemble playing, not the flash and bravura of the leader's keyboard work." At the top of their game, Reich said, "the listener nearly forgets that three distinct voices are at play."

Those three voices have also found a toehold in Detroit with stops at Baker's Keyboard every couple months, including a stop in October to record what is to be their next Big O release.

They'd like fame and a big label deal, but for now they're just three guys who love making music together, looking for the respect of their peers, appreciative of the niche and the audience they've found.


Saturday, March 11, Baker's Keyboard Lounge, 20510 Livernois Ave., Detroit; 313-345-6300; bakerskeyboardlounge.com.

Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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