Organist Chris Hazelton takes his funky jazz to church

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      Chris Hazelton leads at least a couple of bands, books shows for touring acts, and operates his own independent record label, Sunflower Soul—but don’t call the Hammond organ specialist Kansas City’s answer to local impresario and saxophonist Cory Weeds.

      “That guy’s basically the hardest-working dude in jazz!” Hazelton says with a laugh, when the Georgia Straight runs the notion past him during a telephone conversation from his Missouri home. Sunflower Soul has only a couple of full-length albums and a handful of vinyl 45s to its credit, he points out, as opposed to the 100-plus CDs Weeds’s Cellar Live imprint has issued. Still, the two musicians are on the same page when it comes to jazz—they both love organ trios, swinging beats, bebop solos, and the bluesier side of the music.

      After hearing Weeds’s 2006 release The Many Deeds of Cory Weeds on a Kansas City radio station, Hazelton knew that he had to bring his Canadian counterpart stateside for a show or two. Weeds quickly reciprocated, and now the organist is returning to B.C. to play an open-to-the-public birthday party for the promoter at Frankie’s Jazz Club, and to headline Weeds’s latest off-piste venture: the Shadbolt Jazz Walk, a daylong mini-festival at Burnaby’s Shadbolt Arts Centre.

      Appropriately enough, the two gigs will let local listeners hear at least three sides of Hazelton’s talents: playing funky party jazz, backing singer Alyssa Allgood with sensitive accompaniment, and roaring over Jill Townsend’s all-star big band in a tribute to Hammond pioneer Jimmy Smith’s Christmas Cookin’ album.

      “It’s kind of a timeless sound that takes you in a lot of different directions,” Hazelton says of Smith’s 1966 classic, which gives 10 holiday standards a bluesy, bossa-nova-inflected spin. “I remember buying it on a CD as a gift for my dad, and we listened to it as a family, sitting around at the house on Christmas Day. So it kind of holds a sentimental place in my heart, and getting to play the music is really pretty amazing—like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve been listening to this for so long, and now I’m performing it!’ ”

      Apart from that, Christmas Cookin’ is a natural outlet for the organist’s talents, as he’s already accustomed to mixing a spiritual message with a good-time vibe. Until recently, Hazelton was the organist at Kansas City’s Centennial United Methodist Church, and he admits that blending the sacred and the secular comes easily to him.

      “On Sunday morning, I often got the comment ‘Did you forget you weren’t in the club?’ ” he says, laughing. “And on Saturday night it would be ‘Did you forget you’re not in church?’ But I think it’s all related. If we think of music as a spiritual thing, it doesn’t really matter where it happens. We’ve had church moments in jazz clubs, where the audience maybe had an encounter with God, and vice versa. And I’ve had moments in church where I’ve felt like maybe the secular side of my playing got people to moving in a way that they didn’t think they would be on Sunday morning.”

      It all bodes well for Hazelton’s upcoming Vancouver performances. After all, what’s not to like about having a funky good time with perhaps just a hint of something more?

      Chris Hazelton plays Cory Weeds’ Birthday Bash at Frankie’s Jazz Club on Saturday (November 30), before headlining the Shadbolt Jazz Walk on Sunday (December 1).