Mike Cammilleri on celebrating organ trios

The Madison-based jazz organist and his trio play Friday at Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners.

The Madison-based jazz organist and his trio play Friday at Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners.

Mike Cammilleri has been playing Hammond organ in trios around Madison for about 15 years, growing to love not only the sonic and physical quirks of the 300-plus-pound instrument but also the distinctive musical role it has played since jazz musicians began to adopt it. For Cammilleri, the instrument is very much about entertaining a crowd with a variety of material, even though that means some in the jazz world take organ trios less seriously. Cammilleri and drummer Scott Beardsley played as a duo over the years at places including the Avenue Bar and The Fountain, cultivating an affectionately campy old-school supper-club aesthetic (for a time their Avenue Bar shows were actually sponsored by Korbel Brandy). Currently, Cammilleri is exploring different facets of organ-jazz history with guitarist Vince Jesse and drummer John Pollard. The trio, plus saxophonist Steve Cooper, will play at One Barrel Brewing Company on Friday night as part of the Strollin’ Schenk’s Corners jazz showcase, whose lineup spans from avant-garde improvisers to high-school jazz ensembles. Cammilleri talked with me earlier this week about what he has planned for the band’s two-hour Strollin’ show and why the Hammond organ has kept him excited.

Tone Madison: When we were setting up this interview, you mentioned that organ trios are sort of the “black sheep” of jazz and not always taken seriously. Why is that? Is it important to you to have that format showcased at an event like Strollin’ where there’s a whole variety of different jazz styles?

Mike Cammilleri: Sure. I guess I say that from time to time because the organ trio in jazz is sort of a subset of jazz, whereas traditionally when people think of jazz, especially keyboard-type jazz, they think of piano, bass and drums. The organ is electric and the organ trios are generally made of a Hammond organ, an electric guitar and a drummer, and essentially that’s an electric jazz-type group. In the ’60s and the ’70s, and back into the ’50s even, the organ trios were sort of new on the scene. They were sort of the hip thing on the scene. You saw them in a lot of clubs and late-night little hangs, and they were essentially the jukebox for the club. They wanted to hear the organ trio play popular tunes as well as jazz tunes. So when I say it’s the black sheep of jazz, I guess what I’m just trying to say is you see less of it, it’s programmed less in series in various cities. The Strollin’ series is unique because Nick Moran is doing a wonderful job including all kinds of various acts that we have in Madison.

Tone Madison: What is it about the Hammond organ and this organ-trio format that keeps you coming back, as opposed to any other keyboard instrument or jazz format?

Mike Cammilleri: The groove and the swing, I think, and mostly, as a player, the bass player on the organ is really fun for an organist to do. I can’t remember if it was Richard “Groove” Holmes or Charles Earland, but one of them said, “I’ve played piano for many years and one day I was in the club and I saw the organ trio playing and I thought, ‘Man, the organ player is having all the fun, because he’s playing all the bass lines.'” It’s truly a joy to do, because that’s where the swing is at with the drummer. A band that swings really good is going to have an excellent rhythm section, and as the organist, you get to be the keyboardist as well as part of the rhythm section. That’s what keeps me coming back. Of course, the tone and sound of the organ is just gritty and gross and awesome. The first organ trio I heard was Medeski Martin & Wood back in about 1994, and of course they have Chris Wood on upright bass, but the sound of the organ just keeps me coming back to that genre.

Tone Madison: How many of these instruments have you had?

Mike Cammilleri: I’ve had a number over the years, but I always use ones, because I don’t see the point of having an organ trio if you’re not going to use the organ, because it just doesn’t seem to have the same organic base to it. No pun intended. Right now, at least for the Strollin’ series, I’ll be using an A-100, which is like a B3. It’s the exact same sounding organ. Before that, I had a B2 that I used to use at Restaurant Magnus when that was around for a long time. We have another B3 at home that stays at home so I don’t have to move it around. I keep one in the van, I keep one at home. As long as the door’s wide enough for one, I’m gonna play it.

Tone Madison: What do people typically not know about these instruments if they haven’t played them?

Mike Cammilleri: Well, it’s different from a piano in that it has one volume and every single note plays forever and doesn’t decay. Particularly when an organ trio plays and the organist is playing the bass, playing with the drummer is a unique style because of that characteristic. An upright bass is going to have a very distinct attack and decay, and the drummer plays around with that. In an organ trio, the bass is very wide, muddy and sustained, and drummers sort of adapt to playing to that style as well. So in an organ trio… you have to change the way you rhythmically play in order to make the organ work. You just can’t play it like a piano.

Tone Madison: Are there any particular things you’re planning on playing for the Strollin’ show?

Mike Cammilleri: Organ trios tend to play everything, so people have these preconceived notions of what jazz is supposed to be and what it’s supposed to sound like, but in the organ trio, jazz is swing and standards, but it’s also pop tunes, soul tunes, funk tunes, blues tunes—lots of blues tunes, because that’s the foundation—you name it. It can be country tunes. But it’s always the organ-trio format, which has that sound. On Friday, we will play just about everything. We will play lots of swing, we will play lots of blues, but we will also play tunes by George Benson, Michael Jackson, all kinds of stuff. We don’t have a defined setlist but we’ll see what the night brings.

Tone Madison: How is playing with your current trio different from playing in your old duo with drummer Scott Beardsley?

Mike Cammilleri: [The trio does] what I call more traditional jazz organ trio that plays a variety of these songs, concentrates on trying to swing, and just trying to find swing and pocket on whatever we’re playing. In contrast, playing with Scott—a longtime friend of mine, and we still enjoy playing together—when we were at the Avenue Bar, we were doing more of a lounge set, and we were playing for the supper-club, fish fry kind of thing, so we made sure to play all the classics, you know, “Fly Me To The Moon,” “All Of Me,” Frank Sinatra. We don’t do as much of that as the trio we’re doing this Friday, but that’s definitely another subset of the organ trios that are out there.

Tone Madison: Right, in that duo with Scott Beardsley, you had this whole supper-club throwback aesthetic.

Mike Cammilleri: Yeah, we always wore suits. It was more of a ’50s, old-school, but definitely a regional thing. That’s the other thing I try to explain about this genre of music. Not only is it the organ trio, which is a specific thing unto itself, but it is truly a regional type of format, because the Hammond B3 organ was developed in the factory in Chicago. It’s a Midwestern-born instrument. It’s unique to the U.S. And the way jazz musicians embraced that instrument, through Ohio and Indiana and all the way out to the East Coast, this was the type of music that was developed on that instrument right in this are. I like to say that it’s a regional genre of jazz and that we should appreciate that that instrument is actually from here.

Tone Madison: Right—the organ-trio thing and the supper-club thing weren’t just an arbitrary combination you guys made up

Mike Cammilleri: Even at the Fireside Theatre, there used to be an organist that would play there in the lobby. A lot of hotels in the lobby would have organists. Obviously skating rinks, things like that. It was a fixture to have an organ because it was just sort of the entertainment machine. There’s still a few supper clubs here and there that still do that. Even Ishnala has a Hammond organist, and he’s a great player and he sings while he plays solo.

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