Among modern jazz practitioners of the Hammond B-3 organ, Jeff Palmer stands as one of the true innovators. Unlike saxophonists or trumpet players, they learn their licks in relative isolation; there is no legion of predecessors to imitate, and no army of contemporaries with whom to swap tricks and techniques. His gifts as both a composer and instrumentalist work together to create a sound that is both futuristic and rooted in the historical developments that have led to the current moment in jazz. In a musical world dominated by the sophisticated technology of synthesizing, sampling, emulating, and other high-tech gad-getry, musicians like Palmer remind us that there are still many new sounds yet to be created by yesterday’s machines.
Palmer was born on June 1, 1948 in Jackson Heights, New York. Music was a big part of his life from the start. His father, born in Sicily, was a professional guitarist. Palmer was playing the accordion by the age of four, and by nine he was getting paid to perform. When he was about 13, Palmer got his first taste of the future when he heard an album by Jimmy Smith, considered by many to be the greatest jazz organist of all time. He immediately fell in love with the sound of the Hammond organ. Palmer got his own first Hammond for his 15th birthday, and he packed his squeeze-box away for good.
Like most jazz organists, Palmer was on his own when it came to learning how to play the instrument. As his technical ability progressed, Palmer paid his dues working as a sideman with a wide range of performers at small jazz clubs throughout the United States and Europe. It was one of those performers, pianist Paul Bley, who helped Palmer break through as a solo performer and composer. In 1981 Bley produced Palmer’s first album, Outer Limit, a collection of original pieces played solo on organ. This release may have been the first recording of solo jazz organ originals ever made. Released on the Improvising Artists label, the album was a work of organ virtuosity, taking the Hammond in harmonic directions previously unexplored on the instrument. The affinity between Palmer and Bley was strong enough that the pair toured together in Europe twice over the next few years.
By the mid-1980s, Palmer was leading a quartet that featured guitarist John Abercrombie, a regular collaborator for years to come; drummer Adam Nussbaum; and Gary Campbell on saxophone. The group recorded an album, Laser Wizard, in 1987, which went on to earn a Grammy nomination. Cadence magazine reviewer Milo Fine perceived Palmer’s work as the next link in a historical jazz fusion chain that included Tony Williams’s Lifetime—which featured organ great Larry Young—and John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra. Fine was impressed with how “Palmer’s ensemble flows and swirls with a rather eloquent assertiveness.”
Palmer and company followed up Laser Wizard with Abracadabra, which was recorded in 1987 but not released until 1990, on the Italian label Soul Note. Using the same lineup as before, with the exception of former Miles Davis band saxophonist Dave Liebman replacing Campbell, Palmer further explored the fusion terrain he had first penetrated with the earlier album. However, at least one critic, Down Beafwriter Art Lange, was unconvinced. Comparing Abracadabra with the work of Miles Davis nearly 20 years earlier, Lange felt that the quartet failed to cut loose with sufficient direction or drive. As he wrote in his February 1991 review, “often things float around aimlessly.”
In 1993 Palmer released the next in his series of recorded collaborations with Abercrombie. On Ease On, the pair was joined by Arthur Blythe on alto sax and Victor Lewis on drums. Palmer’s compositions utilized traditional blues structures, but took them in intriguingly unfamiliar directions. Many critics were lavish in their praise of Ease On. Bill Kohlhaase, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called it “a wildly innovative program that expands the tradition rather than replicates it.” He
For the Record…
Born June 1, 1948, in Jackson Heights, NY; son of a professional guitarist.
Began performaing professionally on accordion, 1957; switched to Hammond organ, 1963; touring musician, throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Japan, c.1968-; released first album, Outer Limit, 1981; began ongoing collaboration with guitarist John Abercrombie, mid-1980s; recorded Island Universe, 1996.
Awards: Grammy nomination, for Laser Wizard, 1987.
also noted that with this album Palmer “pushes the music beyond Jimmy Smith,” who has generally been regarded as the king of jazz organ.
Palmer’s next recording, 1995’s Shades of the Pine, moved further along in the same musical direction. Jazz critic Pete Fallico wrote that Shades of the Pine offered “some ferocious Hammond organ Blues heard in the context of a futuristic groove.” Along with Palmer and Abercrombie, this album featured tenor saxophonist Billy Pierce and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Jazz Times magazine likewise celebrated Palmer’s compositions as “memorable blues riff figures, very brief but open-ended enough for hard-driving grooves.” They also drew comparisons to the composing of Thelonious Monk.
Palmer was back with a new album in 1996. This project, called Island Universe, reunited Palmer and Abercrombie with Arthur Blythe, and this time the drumming was done by Rashied Ali, a pioneer of free-jazz percussion. At least two reviewers—Scott Yanow for Cadence and John Corbett for Down Beat— acknowledge that by Island Universe, Palmer had moved out of the shadows cast by organ predecessors Smith and Young, and was now forging his own path toward the future of jazz organ playing. Corbett also echoed the notion raised earlier that there was a touch of Monk in Palmer’s compositional style. Writer Fred Bouchard went even further, determining that Palmer “indeed picks up the hard cudgels and loomy pedals of the late Larry Young, exploring areas of the B-3 where no man has gone before and sending back obscure messages.”
In both his approach to his own music and in his evaluation of the direction of music in general, Palmer remains concerned above all with the future. He has worked on developing music school courses in jazz organ, an instrument that has been largely ignored in even the best academies. As a composer, Palmer believes that innovation is the most important aspect of his job. Whatever can be learned from music that has already been created, that body of existing material must be set aside if the composer is to truly succeed. In a 1996 Jazz Now article by Fallico, Palmer articulated his mission this way: “Jazz musicians are in charge of giving audiences climaxes, and they do it intuitively and they’re also in charge of giving the audience a glimpse into the future.… [Audiences] want your blood and you have to be good at it.”
Solo Organ/Outer Limit, Improvising Artists, 1982.
Laser Wizard, Statiras, 1987.
Abracadabra, Soul Note, 1990.
Ease On, AudioQuest, 1993.
Shades of the Pine, Reservoir, 1995.
Island Universe, Soul Note, 1996.
Cadence, October 1987, p. 80; November 1996, p. 104.
Down Beat, February 1991, p. 50; August 1996, p. 63.
Jazz Now, March 1996.
Additional material for this profile was obtained from various independent sites on the World Wide Web.
—Robert R. Jacobson