If Ronnie Foster had never recorded anything but the spaced-out, frank and funky soul of 1972’s Two Headed Frap (recently re-released) and 1973’s Sweet Revival, his place in the history of organ jazz would be a given. His dreamy ambience and diggable groove made him essential listening throughout the 1970s—and essential sampling in the ’90s, as a Tribe Called Quest turned Foster’s then-22-year-old “Mystic Brew” into their “Electric Relaxation.” But the last album he made as a leader came out in 1986; his long absence from the scene only made the hearts and minds of the musicians and DJs who loved him grow fonder. They’ll no doubt be thrilled to accept the bluesy, sultry, frenetic fusion of Reboot (Blue Note), his long-overdue return to the studio.
“I’m happy, man,” says an enthusiastic Foster, high on being back in action (“I’m a reactionary”) and moving on from the organ-jazz traditions he helped write (“Swingin’,” on Reboot“has some turnarounds that Herbie Hancock taught me”) into something future-forward yet still hauntingly familiar with his new album.
“I started out, self-taught, on the piano when I was four,” the Buffalo, NY, native says, noodling on a keyboard in his home studio. “I used to fool around at my grandfather’s house. That developed and became a thing. Then I met a drummer, and we did a little group in high school. We had two tunes that I wrote, funky little things too, and I’d play the chords to ‘Take Five’ and he would solo. And we were a hit with the girls.”
Foster’s next professional endeavor, under the watchful gaze of a chaperone, led him on the path where he remains to this day: “We went to play at this club that didn’t have a piano. Instead, they had a B-3. I was adventurous, so I gave it a try. From then on, I was stuck … blown away. I even used to go to the Hammond store in Buffalo, where I’d give them 50 cents to let me play for an hour.”
From there, Foster made his bones at Buffalo jazz club the Royal Arms, meeting Hammond heroes such as Jimmy Smith, whom he asked for counsel. “’Boy, when you hear me play, you won’t want to play anymore,’ was Smith’s words of warning,” he recalls. “He wanted to know how hungry I was, told me to show up at the Royal Arms when school was done, and the rest was history. Smith was my catalyst.”
Loving all music, “as long as it’s connected to me, spiritually and emotionally,” Foster never saw himself as a jazz purist. The psychedelic blues that he made with guitarist George Benson (“I still talk to George every other week,” the organist says of Benson, whose Cookbook group he joined when Lonnie Smith departed), the hard funk he tapped into on Grant Green’s Alive! in 1970 (“Grant’s album’s why Blue Note signed me [for the first time, two years later]”), and the buoyant R&B he helped forge on Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life are living proof of his mercurial diversity.
“Consciously and subconsciously, I knew I wanted to be different, always,” he says. “Listen to ‘Chunky’ on Two Headed Frap, and you know I wasn’t going to do anything typical. I just think differently when it comes to harmonics.”
Then there’s the fact that Foster was and is the king of the vamp: that startling, hypnotic succession of chords that forms the basis of so much of On the Avenue (1974) Cheshire Cat (1975), as well as Reboot.
“Cheshire Cat was really out there, wasn’t it?” Foster says with a laugh. “Though I’m freeing myself more on Reboot, I’m also now paying homage to the classic organ-jazz trio vibe. The funk and R&B vibe. I like to touch on everything.”
“I love Ronnie,” fellow B-3 boss Joey DeFrancesco says. “I’m happy to see him recording again, especially because he’s never recorded a full-blown organ record. The organ’s always been strong, but now it’s stronger than ever.”
“You ought to see what happens when they hear that J. Cole sampled me.”
Ask Foster what kept him from making a record of his own for more than 35 years, and he’s quick to answer. “Production stuff that I did for Sony Brazil and Sony Latin, such as Djavan and Chayanne. Doing the same for Will Downing, who’s like a brother to me. Arranging for Earl Klugh. Playing again with George Benson. One thing leads into the next. Putting on other hats took time.”
While working on the aforementioned projects, Foster kept writing. He says he has enough new material and unbound energy to make a dozen Reboots—and he’s also got the services of a new trio featuring guitarist Michael O’Neill and his son, drummer Chris Foster.
“It’s funny because I play basketball five times a week for three hours a day with guys much younger than me, running full-court,” the 72-year-old Foster says. “If that doesn’t impress them, you ought to see what happens when they hear that J. Cole sampled me. That’s a whole ‘nother thing. Let’s just say I won’t be slowing down any time soon.”
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