This year’s Savannah-Safe Jazz Festival is welcoming the return of B-3 Hammond master Pat Bianchi, who appeared with jazz guitar icon Pat Martino several years ago.
Bianchi is a Grammy Award nominated organist, winner of Downbeat Magazine’s 2016 Rising Star poll, and Hot House magazine’s best organist in New York.
Bianchi, who will be appearing at the festival with his trio, comes from a musical family, began playing organ when he was 7-years-old, and was already playing professional gigs at age 11.
"One of my grandfathers, on my father’s side, played piano and organ, but I actually discovered the B-3 more or less on my own through the years," said Bianchi.
"At a very young age, my father played in a lot of different dance bands, which were basically small group formats of big band music. There was one with an organ player, so I really heard that sound at a really young age, but then later on hearing Joey DeFrancesco, and lot of local players in the Rochester area, that really got me to switch from playing piano to full organ."
The B-3 Hammond organ has an unusual sound that sets it apart from other keyboard instruments, and Bianchi was drawn to it’s unique qualities.
"I would say it is sonically different, obviously — the organ has such a full sound," explained Bianchi. "It can cover a lot of different directions, in the sense that it can be more of a funky kind of thing, more groove oriented versus playing just straight ahead. With this trio, we cover the grounds of more modern jazz things. We do a lot more adventurous playing, you could say, at times. A regular jazz trio might have a piano and bass, where here I’m covering the bass lines and then there’s a guitar player who, when he’s not soloing, is acting like a pianist with his left hand for accompanying me while I’m still soloing."
When learning how to play the organ, Bianchi developed an interesting approach to the instrument that led to a chance meeting with his hero and eventual mentor.
"I was maybe 18 or 19," recalled Bianchi. "There was an internet mailing list before online forums. When I was playing Hammond as a teenager, I didn’t have a full size B-3, so I had to learn how to play the bass on my feet because the keyboard didn’t go far enough out to play with my left hand."
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Someone in the internet conversation made the comment that basslines on the organ should be played with the left hand. That someone, unbeknownst to Bianchi, was the legendary jazz organist, Joey DeFrancesco.
"I didn’t know who I was talking to, so it ended up turning into a little argument, I guess you could say, but that’s what led to me meeting him and it’s been a life-long joke we tell ever since then."
With DeFrancesco as a mentor, Bianchi has developed into a top B-3 player — and even uses his left hand for bass.
"These days it’s actually a combination of both — using the left hand to create lines and then the pedals help in terms of really accenting lines," explained Bianchi.
"I’m trying to create bass-lines more in line with a bass player, and unlike a piano player, an organ doesn’t have touch sensitivity at the keys so hard hard you hit it, it’s the same volume unless you adjust the expression pedal, which you do with your right foot. Using the foot pedals together with the left hand allows me to create more bass player like lines as opposed to a key board player’s bass. It’s a little different in that way."
Bianchi has appeared on over 30 recordings and has recorded six albums as a band leader. His latest recording is a tribute to Stevie Wonder that is due for release sometime next year. His last album, 2019’s "In the Moment" featured a jazzy version of Wonder’s "Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing."
"I love the way he writes," said Bianchi. "He writes some incredible songs that really seem to fit well with the organ trio format."
Bianchi’s stellar organ trio features Paul Bollenback on guitar and Byron Landham on drums.
"I’ve been a fan of their playing for the past twenty-plus years," said Bianchi. "We’ve worked together a lot, even before the whole pandemic we’ve been playing together during this time. There’s an element of family and friendship in that band, so that translates into the music on the bandstand. Having that special thing, I always try to have those guys when I’m playing as a leader."