Jake Sherman has grown to become a quiet force within both the jazz and pop realms. Between laying down organ on projects with the Armand Hirsch Trio, Gretchen Parlato, Kenneth “Gizmo” Rogers, and many others, as well as recording every instrument on his own solo record, Sherman has amassed a repertoire to match any and has harnessed his own style on the organ, something that is lost to many today. In our interview Jake takes us through his work as well as the inner workings of the organ on a technical scale.
How did you get started on the organ in general seeing that it is sort of rare for kids these days to pick up the organ?
I think I heard it on a John Mayer record in the background originally or something like that. I heard that sound and I was like, “Wow, what is that?” I found it was a Hammond so I decided that’s what I wanted. Then I was at a music school and I saw they were giving away a free one. It wasn’t a good one, but it was a free one. So I got that pretty quickly. My parents were nice enough to get a moving truck and do all of that. I didn’t know whether it was a B3 or what, but it didn’t matter. I got some records, you know, Joey DeFrancesco, John Medeski, and people like that. So I played for a while and got more into jazz. I went to a jam session in Rhode Island where this guy Lonnie Gasperini was playing. My mom brought me out from Boston so I could see a real organist. I got there like an hour early so I could help him move it and everything. So he let me play it and that was the first time I played a real B3. That was also the moment that I learned the one I had at home was not a B3 [laughs].
Lonnie Gasperini is good friends with Dr. Lonnie Smith. So I got in contact with him and set up some lessons. That really got me my start.
What is a lesson with Dr. Lonnie Smith like? Does he speak a lot or is it more demonstration-oriented?
It was very different from any other lesson I’ve had. He didn’t say too much. He just played and had me play. He would say a few words once in a while, but they were some of the best lessons I’ve had. I learned that to show someone something, you don’t have to say very much. He also made it clear that no matter what the right hand does, the left hand and feet, which are like the time and the bass, if that’s not good, then nothing else matters.
Learning organ is very different from a lot of other instruments. You have the two sides with the melody and bass. When you practice, do you frequently split the two up into separate parts?
Yeah I definitely split them up in the beginning. Definitely when there is something tough, the left hand especially, I’ll do each hand on its own. The left hand is really the part that is way different than the piano. It’s also connected to the left foot playing the pedals. So I have spent a good deal of time splitting up the different parts.
What are some of your favorite organ recordings that you go back to for inspiration or reference?
The jazz record that really did it for me is called Incredible! by Joey DeFrancesco and Jimmy Smith. It’s a live show from a jazz festival in San Francisco I think in the late-‘90s. That was the first time I really heard Joey DeFrancesco. Then I got to hear Jimmy on it too. They’re both in top form.
The organ can fit into music in a lot of different ways. Some people feel it’s overbearing at times. What makes a great organ player in your opinion?
Taste. It’s a good point about the overbearing aspect. You have to know what you’re doing because there is so much you can do with the sound. You have to be aware of the whole band and make sure that you’re in the right place.
Who are you working with these days?
I’m on Gizmo’s new record, which was great to do. I play with Nick Hakim as well. I also just released my first solo record where I played all of the instruments and sang. There’s some organ on that too.
What was that process like for you?
I wrote most of the songs on piano and then developed the concepts to turn it into a whole band thing. It was a great learning process. I would try to hear the part in my head and play it on each instrument. I got a lot better on a lot more instruments by forcing myself to figure them out.
Take me in-depth into the intricacies of the organ. What do all of the drawbars entail?
Well the overtones of each drawbar are different notes. They’re all basically sine waves. So what makes a violin different from say an oboe, if they’re playing the same note, is the overtone series. So each drawbar is a different note and it acts like EQ. Lets say you hold a C. You pull out the first drawbar and it’s a C. The second drawbar gets an octave and a fifth above that. The next drawbar is an octave above the first one. It’s all fifths, octaves, and thirds.
So not only does your sound change between styles, but between songs, and even notes?
Yeah, you learn different settings. It’s sort of like ear training. Once you know enough settings, and exactly how they sound, than every other setting is just somewhere in between two settings you already know. So yeah, there are definitely changes in the settings in the song or within the chord. You might go from a quieter sound on a verse to a bigger setting on the chorus.
Then you have vibrato, which is played within the organ. And then there is the Leslie switch, which is a different kind of vibrato with the Leslie speaker that spins. There is also the volume pedal that is very important. Organs aren’t touch-sensitive. No matter how hard you hit the keys, it’s the same volume. The volume pedal also controls tone, which a lot of people don’t realize. It cuts the mids when you bring it down so that if you’re playing organ trio or like jazz organ and you’re playing bass, you don’t lose all of the bass when you’re playing softly.
Interview by Eric Sandler