Organist Jon Lord tells Peter Bacon about music without boundaries.
Where would you expect to find an organist? Well, a church or cathedral would be a fairly sensible place to start.
And in Lichfield Cathedral, with its director of music and two assistant organists making regular visits up into the loft where a musical instrument as big as half a house sits, you can find one at most times of the day, and on most days of the week.
But on the evening of Friday, July 17, you will find a very different kind of organist in Lichfield Cathedral – one who is better known for standing over an electric Hammond organ with a large Leslie speaker attached and for much of his musical career has been more accustomed to playing to whole stadia of rock fans with one of the loudest rock bands in the world.
Jon Lord has always been known not only as the organist in Deep Purple but also as a musician who leaps the artificial boundaries that marketers or the media or even the audience put up between different areas of music. Hence, fairly early in his Deep Purple career he wrote Concerto for Group and Orchestra, which placed the band in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall stage with the Royal Philharmonic in their serried ranks around them.
In recent years he has enjoyed success in the classical charts with his Durham Concerto.
Speaking to me from his music studio at home, Jon explained what, after an initial classical music education, had first alerted him to rock music.
“I heard Jerry Lee Lewis playing Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, and I wanted my piano to sound like that. But it wouldn’t. So I investigated further – I was lucky in being a teenager at the time of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.”
But the one kind of music didn’t replace the other. “I kept my love of classical music but just added rock ‘n’ roll to it and later jazz. Dave Brubeck drew me into jazz…but adding to my likes rather than replacing them with another.”
So now Jon, the classical pianist, was playing rock, but he had to have the right instrument.
“The first time I heard the Hammond organ played with massive intensity was by Jimmy Smith. I had heard it before as part of some American big band recordings and on some blues recordings by people like Muddy Waters, but to hear Jimmy Smith playing Walk On The Wild Side I just knew I had to have one.”
There was an early snag, as Jon recalls.
“Actually, I didn’t know it was a Hammond, I just knew it was an electric organ, so the first band I was in, we went out and bought an organ but it was the wrong one – we bought a Lowry, which, fine organ that it is, is not a Hammond.
“So I asked a friend at the time called Graham Bond, who had a band called the Graham Bond Organisation, with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker: ‘How do I get my organ to sound like a Hammond?’
“He said: ‘First you take hold of your Lowry and you burn it, and then you go out and buy a Hammond.’ So… not that we burnt the Lowry, but we did sell it and go and buy a Hammond. And the first time I played it, it was a revelation.”
He has said before that, as an instrument, it is like an animal that has to be tamed. “You have to be master of it, you can’t pussyfoot around. You have to understand it and know how to use its potential because the remarkable thing about it, that makes it so different, is that it is a combination of electronics and mechanics.
“The sound is produced by rotating tone wheels which make an electronic impulse which is then fed through the amplifier. And it’s interesting to note that Mr Hammond himself, who invented it, was a clockmaker, and not a musician at all.
“The other strange thing is that the piece of amplification equipment that goes best with a Hammond organ is of course a Leslie speaker which was invented by a guy called Don Leslie to try and create the effect of that cavernous inside of a church.
“But Hammond didn’t like Leslie or his invention. But they’re now like strawberries and cream…when you buy a Hammond you pretty much buy a Leslie.”
It is the Hammond/Leslie combination that Jon Lord will be using with his band in Lichfield Cathedral on July 17, but wasn’t the Lichfield Cathedral organ something of a temptation, I asked?
“Well what you have there in the cathedral is an astounding instrument; a wonderful piece of organ building and I love the way the pipes are put in. The only time I ever really played a church organ was in a small church.
“I’ve lost the use of the pedals, I used to play the pedals and I still know what the technique is but I tend to make that drastic mistake of looking down to try and get the pedals to work. I speak to a lot of young musicians who look over my shoulder at the Hammond Organ and say well how do you know what to do with all that stuff? Well I think exactly that looking over the shoulder of the organist in Lichfield Cathedral.”
So, will Jon Lord have a go on the night of his concert? We will just have to wait and see.
What we do know is that with Jon on the stage will be singers Steve Balsamo and Kasia Laska, flautist Bruce Martin, Nigel Hopkins on keyboards, Don Richmond on bass and Steve White on drums, plus the Badke string quartet.
What is it like trying to combine an electric band with a string quartet?
“Well, I love the tightrope that you have to walk in a way. You have an extremely loud drum kit and then a Hammond Organ and an electric bass player and yet need to put them together with a string quartet in a way that both don’t get compromised.
Have attitudes to this mixing of rock and classical music changed down the years?
“Oh yes, reactions have changed radically since I first – and I use this word advisedly – ‘dared’ to try it. It got praise and damnation from both sides of the divide.
“Of course my contention is that the divide doesn’t exist in music, it only exists in the minds of the people who are observing it. Nowadays, I sense a genuine surge of enthusiasm on the part of both sides of that musical divide.”
* Jon Lord plays in Lichfield Cathedral on Friday, July 17. Tickets are available from 01543 412 121 or www.lichfieldfestival.org