One Of N.Y.'s Busiest Organists, Brian Charette, Returns Home To Plays New Haven

Organist Brian Charette has Connecticut roots. H's Mighty Grinders play the 9th Note.

If the joyous intersection of jazz, funk, gospel, soul and blues could be expressed by a single sound, you might locate it among the manuals and switches of a Hammond B-3 organ.

In the hands of the right players — Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, Joey DeFrancesco, Barbara Dennerlein and others — the B-3 is a band within a band, slicing through drums and cymbals with melodic lines while laying down its own walking-bass counterpoint. The B-3 comps behind a guitar or saxophone with soul and grit, but without the percussive clatter of a piano. It conjures the church or speakeasy at will, like adjacent properties on the same sidewalk.

For two decades and counting, Brian Charette, who grew up in Meriden, has been one of NYC's busiest organists. Last year, Charette released two albums of organ-trio jazz, "Square One" and "Good Tipper," on Posi-tone Records, within a span of six months.

At Lincoln Center this past weekend, Charette served as musical director for a tribute to guitarist Wes Montgomery, who recorded his most exhilarating work in trios with organist Melvin Rhyne (Charette's primary influence). This Saturday, March 14, Charette returns home with his Mighty Grinders, a trio with guitarist Will Bernard and drummer Eric Kalb, for a gig at the 9th Note in New Haven.

As a teenager, Charette studied classical piano at UConn while picking up jazz from Ellen Rowe, Kenny Werner and Charlie Banacos. He gigged all over the state with the popular band Street Temperature and worked with bassist Paul Brown and saxophonists Houston Person and Lou Donaldson.

"It was really amazing, actually," Charette said. "In some ways, they were the brightest musical moments of my life, and I didn't even play organ yet."

After touring in the Czech Republic, Charette felt the pull of New York City; he moved into the East Village building depicted on the cover of Led Zeppelin's 1975 album "Physical Graffiti," where he still lives. (It's also one of his favorite albums.)

"I had never seen a cockroach before," Charette said. "New York is good, because everyone who comes here has to go through some sort of growth crisis of some kind. You really come up against your weaknesses, and you're surrounded by people who are really brilliant. You have to pull yourself together."

One night, Charette got a call to play organ, for a club gig right on his block. "I couldn't even play the organ at all," he said. Soon, Charette located a studio on the Lower East Side, bought a B-3 and went to work.

"I would practice it all day. I started to play a lot of gigs in Harlem, where you play with a lot of saxophones. It's a very good place to be for the Hammond organ. I cut my teeth up there with some of those acts, and I just started to do it all the time."

Even at clubs like the Blue Note, Charette plays a digital organ. "A lot of times, the B-3 is the worst option, especially if I'm on tour in Europe," he said. "The B-3s are really sketchy sometimes." He works closely with Hammond, who supplied him with the SK1, a one-manual digital organ designed to sound like a B-3.

"It's really incredible… One manual is a slight compromise, because you're used to playing two manuals, but for traveling, two manuals isn't even an option. There's no airline that would take that without charging you much more. Traveling with the instrument: Lufthansa just wrecked one of my keyboards. It's tough to travel. There's no great organ solution for traveling."

Of Charette's two most recent releases, "Good Tipper" is the more traditional collection, with 1960s covers (the Zombies' "Time of the Season" and Glen Campbell's "Wichita Lineman") and a slightly lounge-y vibe. "Square One" is slightly more adventurous; listen to the jagged metric shifts (on "Time Changes"), the occasional slips into bent-circuit electronica ("Things You Don't Mean") and rugged funk workouts (Charette's cover of the Meters' "Ease Back," for example).

Still, Charette suggests, the separation of the material into two distinct albums is a sort of sleight-of-hand.

"We had so much music recorded," he said. "A lot of times we have so much more music than we can fit on the albums, and I actually have a lot of releases for Posi-tone. They come out really quickly. I have another one coming in two months, and they're still playing 'Good Tipper.' I have a lot of material."

Charette's travels still include the Czech Republic, where he once lived for part of the year.

"My girlfriends have all been Czech for many years," Charette said. "I think any American who lives in Prague, that's their story. The girls are bewitching, for sure."

Brian Charette’s Mighty Grinders play the 9th Note, 56 Orange St, New Haven, on Saturday, March 14, at 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. Information: and 203-691-9918.

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