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Nothing beats a Hammond B3

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

This month started with a trip to Cotton Club in Tokyo’s Marunouchi district to see the trio Aquapit play a gig to promote their new album “Orange.”

Before the show even started, something caught my attention: Occupying center stage was a vintage Hammond B3 organ, perfectly framed by a set of curtains that served as a backdrop. There was also a distinctive Leslie speaker cabinet with a rotating horn located a few feet behind the organ.

This instrument secured a place in jazz history in the 1950s and ’60s via the work of artists such as Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott and Dr. Lonnie Smith, but faded away in the ’70s as more portable keyboards became the norm. The Hammond B3′s distinctive sound, however, has its own dedicated fans and the instrument has maintained its place in jazz culture, albeit via newer more compact versions of the original.

Aquapit, led by organist Yuta Kaneko and accompanied by guitarist Yosuke Onuma and drummer Hidenobu “Kalta” Otsuki, delivered a really tight set made up of selections from both the band’s new album, “Orange,” and its self-titled 2011 release.

The trio’s set referenced classic organ jazz grooves as well as incorporating elements of Latin and rock, resulting in a refreshing sound that avoided the pitfalls of simply sounding like a retro pastiche.

Technological developments in recent years mean that there are now digital keyboards that can emulate the sound of the Hammond, but Kaneko remains a firm fan of the real thing.

“Besides music itself, I have a penchant for the various sounds that comprise music,” he says. “If I come across a particular sound I like while I’m composing or performing, this inspires me to create the soundscape of what comes next. With improvisational music like jazz, this is really important.

“The old, real Hammond organs deliver great sounds that always exceed my expectations. While it’s true that in recent years there have been many modern organs that are getting close to the sound of the classic models, in terms of tone quality and manipulation, nothing really reaches the level of the B3, much in the same way that electric pianos can’t truly match the sound of a grand piano.”

It’s for this reason that the inconvenient size of the old B3 isn’t a problem for Kaneko.

“Basically, until that time in the future when I come across a new model that I can truly rely on,” he says, “I’ll continue to play a big, heavy, old school organ.”

One other artist who feels the same way is Toshihiko Kankawa, who goes by the nickname the “King of Organ.” He has been a leading Hammond player for the past 30 years, having spent some time in the United States under the tutelage of the famed Jimmy Smith in the ’80s. The Hammond B3 also counts musician Daisuke Kawai as a fan.

Once you’ve heard an actual Hammond B3 played live, though, it’s easy to understand where the adoration comes from. There are several contemporary acts in Japan who feature later, more portable versions of the organ or other keyboards that produce a similar sound, such as Nagoya-based BlackQP’67 or Saitama’s funk outfit Mountain Mocha Kilimanjaro. Both of these bands are worth watching, but the newer organs don’t quite have the same depth and warmth as the older models.

If you want to see a Hammond B3 in action, you don’t have to wait for the next Aquapit gig. Just a short walk from Tokyo’s Numabukuro Station is the appropriately named Organ Jazz Club, a medium-size venue equipped with its own B3. A strategically positioned mirror behind the organ allows the audience to see the players work their magic over the keys to produce that rich, distinct sound that has been part of the jazz landscape for the past half a century or so.