• Keith Pray

You want to play what????

As long as I can remember I have been mesmerized by music. Some of my earliest memories were of recording TV and movie themes onto my tape recorder. Each episode trying to get a better sounding recording than the last. I had no idea what was involved in recording music or making music, I just knew that I needed to hear it all the time. By the time I entered school, I wanted desperately to play an instrument. A few years later I took piano lessons for a while (I didn't get very far, but loved to play on the piano!), then came trying to teach myself to play the guitar (fail). Eventually the saxophone would take a hold of my life in 9th grade and I never looked back. There was no rhyme or reason as to why I picked the saxophone, I just knew I needed to make music. Almost simultaneously I began learning how much I loved bass lines and soon gained a basic understanding of how they were created so I began exploring them on the piano (by the way, I still really couldn't play the piano).


Most people have no idea what the Hammond organ even is, but most have heard it. The Hammond sound can be heard in almost every style of American music since the early Swing era. Sometimes in the background sometimes as a solo instrument but its there most of us just didn't know it. At the age of 18 I had a life changing experience when I saw saxophonist Maceo Parker perform with his group. What caught me first was not his playing as he was not on stage. The band began playing and I had never heard a groove like they were playing. It hit me very hard and I was stunned. Then I realized it was the bass that was really grabbing me. The next mystery however was there was no bass player! This was my introduction to the Hammond organ. Larry Goldings laying down funky basslines with the swirling sound of the Leslie speaker. I was hooked but had no idea I would ever decide to play the “Beast”.


I continued to evolve as a musician studying and practicing but on the saxophone, yet still there would be the occasion of playing with an organist in an R&B or rock band. Each time loving that sound. Then I started collecting recordings that featured the organ, Willis Jackson’s Bar Wars, Jimmy Smith with Stanley Turrentine, Lou Donaldson with Dr. Lonnie Smith. Boy I loved those saxophonists! And yes I really liked the sound of the organ swinging and groovin' along with them too but it was not as intentional. It was a slow burn..


(Interlude) soon after graduating college in the mid 90’s I went to look at an apartment with my roommate. It was a second story flat. As we walked up the stairs I felt a good vibe. We opened the door to a very large flat and at the other end of the main room was a Conn organ. Not a hammond but super awesome. I asked the landlord if the organ came with the place and he said yes. We took the apartment.


By the end of the 1990’s I had moved to New York City and had opportunities to play with some great jazz organ players. What a learning experience! I realized having an organ playing the bass lines completely changed how the music needed to be approached by the horn player, guitarist and even the drummer. The grooves were deep, soulful and had a different kind of space than when a bass player and pianist were in the band. Around this time I also witnessed one of the masters… Dr Lonnie Smith. That was it!


I was already a fan of the Doctor’s early work but he was onto a whole new thing and helping to revitalize the organ tradition that had been put to the side due to the synthesizer generation. His music was hypnotic, funky as could be and profoundly creative all at the same time. I rushed home with one of his tunes stuck in my head and figured it out on my keyboard. The next thing I knew I had an organ keyboard on the way from an ebay auction. It arrived and I began trying to find the sounds of Dr. Lonnie as well as Charles Earland and any other organist that I liked the sound of. I wasn’t learning to play the organ then as much as learning the sounds and how they worked. I would transcribe a song and write it out to have someone else play so I could play saxophone to them. The years went by and I moved out of the city to Upstate New York.


There were a handful of very good R&B organists but only a couple who played jazz. Not long after moving I found a real Hammond organ and Leslie for sale and gave it a good home. More experiments of sound, especially now that the real sound was floating through the air. The main purpose of getting the organ was to try and talk pianists into playing it but most were weary of its power and mystery. I began bringing a small keyboard to gigs to play some basic organ chords to join in with the pianist and it was fun and added something different. Then the keyboard got a little bigger…


October 1st 2016 I woke up in the morning with one thing on my mind. I would start learning to play the organ and eventually perform on it! I made a plan of the skills required and began acting on it. Ever so slowly I made progress and in a couple of months I could play a few basic tunes and sound convincing (ok more of a novelty act). In four months I did my first gig which was three sets. I felt like I was hit by a freight train. Saxophonists typically play a fraction of the time during a set of music, so I was exhausted both mentally and physically but was back at the organ again the next day. I was hooked! I read about the organ, watched videos, listened to recordings, and asked anyone who knew how to play, all to fill in the gaps. In the first year I only missed 10 days of practicing!


People started to take a chance and hire me to play for them, which was a big chance being I was playing the chords and basslines. More performances equaled more experience and I kept improving (also taking lessons with the legendary Tony Monaco helped). The more people have hired me, the more I improve. The instrument is like a full orchestra in one instrument. It can whisper, roar and everything in between. I started composing music in middle school before I even really knew how to read or play much music. I always wrote at a keyboard instrument (even though I was never very good at playing them). The organ has proved to be a muse, providing many knew compositions over the last few years.


At the beginning of the pandemic, I began preparations for my debut recording. I had more than enough material and my skills were convincing in a live situation. Recording is a different situation altogether. Its a microscope that detects all of your flaws and makes you never satisfied with your performance. Chasing that perfection means you may keep playing it over and over to get it right, only to suck the life out of it. So I put the recording on the back burner. I played some more gigs and then I decided in August of 2021 to book a studio session and go in with the material and do two takes of each song and walk out, accepting what ever came out. It has become my first release as a Hammond organist and the tunes on the album are right at the core of the first organ experiences I had. Funky soulful grooves. I had originally intended to use a larger band thinking it would help fill the gaps I had but once I began playing with Mike and Chad on these tunes I thought what better way to jump in then the classic OGD (organ guitar and drums). No frills, just right "Down the Middle".

to check out the recording click here



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