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Throbbing monster box: Brian Charette, Jim Alfredson bring digital dazzle to Moriarty’s Pub

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Imagine an eight-mile-high tower of keyboards, pedals, speakers and amps, whirring with gears and woven with wires, blasting a contrapuntal fantasia of dirty blues, slick jazz, bombastic prog rock, gospel shouts and Bach toccatas into the intergalactic void.

That’s pretty much what you get when New York multi-keyboardist Brian Charette and his Lansing-based friend, Jim Alredson of organissimo, join forces.

How they’ll get all that gear into tiny Moriarty’s Pub for Tuesday’s jazz night is their secret.

Charette is based in New York’s East Village, where he’s not only kept the holy grease fire of Hammond B-3 trio jazz lit, but also become a go-to collaborator for many musical icons, including Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Chaka Khan and Cyndi Lauper.

Charette met Alfredson at a trade show in Los Angeles 10 years ago and they’ve been playing concerts together ever since. Their joint appearances at the huge NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) exhibition in Los Angeles grew into an evolving set of material that features both musicians on Hammond B-3 and various synths.

They quickly hit it off on multiple levels, from their wide-ranging musical tastes to their endless fascination with keyboard tech.

“He has incredible keyboards – all the good stuff,” Charette said.

Charette grew up in the Hartford area and trained as a classical pianist, but he also played with many top jazz musicians when they came to town, including sax legends Houston Person and Lou Donaldson.

His first experience with jazz was a big band in his local high school. Jazz musician Ellen Rowe, now a professor of piano at the University of Michigan, was Charette’s piano teacher at the University of Connecticut.

“Between Jim and Ellen, I have quite a strong Lansing connection,” Charette said.

Another thing Charette and Alfredson have in common is that their first great musical passion was the long-form, maximalist prog rock of groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.

The first organist that grabbed Charette’s ear wasn’t Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, or any of the other jazz organ icons, but lard-churning keyboard king Chester Thompson from the funky 1970s horn ensemble Tower of Power.

But Charette stuck to piano through college and first got involved in playing the Hammond B-3 “by mistake.”

“When I first moved to New York, I was very starving,” he said. He was living on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, in the ramshackle apartment building immortalized on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album. One day, he got his hands on a Hammond XB 2, a small, portable system.

“That night, I got called to play Hammond organ,” he said. “I don’t even know why.”

He adapted quickly to the instrument started playing organ at the St. Mark’s Bar just down the street.

“Everybody saw me playing organ, even though I was trained completely as a pianist,” he said.

When he started to get frequent calls to play Hammond organ, he bought one of his own and moved the beast into a studio with George Coleman Jr., son of tenor sax great George Coleman.

“I practiced for a few years, started to make albums and get gigs. It was very organic.” (He didn’t even put any English on the pun.)

Last year, Charette released an album of music with the elder Coleman, “Groovin’ with Big G,” to critical acclaim.

Like Alfredson, Charette is a scholar of the amazingly durable Hammond B-3 and its fascinating history.

Its inventor, Laurens Hammond, worked in Detroit and Chicago at various engineering jobs before hitting on the design for a foursquare, throbbing monster box that still rocks listeners in the 21st century.

“He was an incredible inventor,” Charette said. “He invented 3-d movie glasses. He worked on automatic transmissions.”

The clunky B-3 found itself perched at a sweet confluence of sleeves-up Midwestern inventiveness and down-to-earth musical enjoyment. In Chicago, Hammond put his knowledge of synchronous motors to work and set up the Hammond Clock Company.

“If you look at the side of a Hammond B-3 it looks very much like the workings of a clock,” Charette said.

The B-3’s unique tonewheel, a throbbing muscle of old-school gears and invisible electromagnetic forces, is the source of its secret sauce. Even its most noticeable flaw — “leakage” of tones — turned out to enrich the sauce. Later models just added a knob so the player could twiddle with “tonewheel leakage” the same way they adjsut volume or treble.

To go further down this rabbit hole, collar either Charette or Alfredson after Tuesday’s gig. They’d be happy to send you home tone-wheeled and red-eyed.

“He’s a little more technical than I am,” Charette said of Alfredson. “He does product demos for everybody — Casio, Kurzweil. He can fix pianos, tune pianos.”

At the keyboard, Charette, like Alfredson, manages to satisfy jazz purists while importing energy and surprise from places outside the tradition.

“I love to play jazz, but I’m kind of a rocker more than a jazz person,” he said. “I bring those elements into the music I play.”

Despite his digital fluency, he considers himself a composer first and a player second.

“Composing is the thing I’m most interested in,” he said.

These days, he is writing for larger ensembles, including an orchestra in Budapest and a big band based in Prague.

Much of Charette’s current music veers nearly into contemporary classical territory. The Brian Charette Organ Sextette (a play on his last name) brings together the unusual combo of organ, drum, flute, alto and tenor saxophones and bass clarinet. The combo’s first record was influenced French visionary composer Olivier Messiaen, the  20th-century French visionary composer who experimented with bird sounds, hyper-enriched chords and other fantastic flavors of sound.

Meanwhile, the boiling, bubbling B-3 rolls on. The organ is still Charette’s calling card and musical touchstone, and he’s fine with that.

“It doesn’t seem to go out of style,” he said. “It’s an incredible sound, an incredible machine.”

                                                                         

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