Jim Witzel: Feelin’ It

Californian guitarist's organ combo stays bluesy and bends Lennon & McCartney and originals in the style of Shorter and Hancock to the idiom

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Still plenty of people are feelin’ it these days. That is, unpretentious and blues-drenched organ combo jazz. The latest outing by California raised and based guitarist Jim Witzel boasts the accessibility that is so vital to the connection of soul jazz with its audience.

However, Witzel’s group, featuring Hammond organist Brian Ho and, on three tunes, tenor saxophonist Dann Zinn, puts many a run-of-the-mill bar band to shame. Though steeped in groove, Feelin’ It is defined by tasteful melody lines and solos.

It took a press release to discover that Witzel’s last album was released in 1993 – a long time ago and mostly due to his commitments as a professor of guitar studies. Witzel spent years as leader or sideman in organ combos but also is a fan of such modern tunesmiths as Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. They are obviously the source of his knack for writing catchy compositions.

Witzel’s blues-based and sassy melodies ooze the mid-60s Blue Note vibe and stray from the stereotypical 12-bar structure. The title track is smooth as honey dripping from a spoon and Ms. Information reminds of Duke Pearson, one of the hippest tunesmiths of the hard-bop era.

Among the album’s standards, Softly As In A Morning Sunrise stands out for the group’s surprising and fluent shifting between keys. Though I feel that Witzel’s thin and ethereal tone is out of keeping with the album’s groove format, it has to be said that his playing is top notch and his crystal-clear lines work towards balanced climaxes. Ho’s Hammond stories are equally void of sensationalism and marked by potent dissonant details, while Zinn peppers his husky tenor lines with high-speed bundles of notes that morph into quirky glissandos.

Ever since the golden age of soul jazz, organ combos have covered popular tunes. Witzel is no exception, and his dreamy take on Lennon & McCartney’s Norwegian Wood is marked by octave playing that gives it a distinctive flower-power flavour. Well done.

Discography
Feelin’ It; Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise; Norwegian Wood; Beyond Being; I Loves You Porgy; If Ever I Would Leave You; Ms. Information; The Old Country (48.07)
Witzel (g); Brian Ho (org); Dann Zinn (ts #1, 4 & 7); Jason Lewis (d). Berkeley, 6 & 7 July 2021 and Belmont, 5 August 2021.
Joplin & Sweeney