Like thousands of other musicians, guitarist, composer and bandleader Bob DeVos’ interest in playing the guitar started with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1960s. But he didn’t become truly obsessed with playing the instrument for a living until he heard jazz guitarists like Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery.
His group, Bob DeVos’ Organ Now, will be the final event in “Jazz in the City,” a series of free concerts staged in front of the State Theater in New Brunswick. The series opens Wednesday, September 6, with drummer Cindy Blackman and her quartet. Trumpeter Valery Ponomarev will perform the following Wednesday, September 13, and Bob DeVos’ Organ Now closes the series on Wednesday, September 20.
DeVos, who was born in Paterson and grew up in North Haledon in Passaic County, made his professional debut as a teenager. He first heard recordings by Wes Montgomery when he was 18. His fascination with organ-guitar based trios and quartets has lasted beyond four decades now. He says there was an organ player in one of the R&B bands he played in in high school, and then in the early 1970s he saw primarily organ-based groups in Newark clubs like the Key Club and the Cadillac Club. “I played the Key Club many times with [organist] Trudy Pitts and Mr. C., which was the first group I worked with full-time,” DeVos says in a phone interview from his home in West Orange.
The son of a machinist father and mother who was a housewife, DeVos had an older brother, Roger, whose record collection sparked DeVos’s interest in jazz and blues-based jazz. “Growing up, there wasn’t much jazz in the house except for one Duke Ellington record. But my mother and father used to go to Atlantic City and Asbury Park to hear people like Duke, Count Basie, and Tommy Dorsey,” he says. “Roger had a very good R&B record collection, and so that’s what I initially got into in high school. He had one B.B. King record and he had some Ray Charles in there, too, and that’s the music I liked. The first band I was in, we played tunes by James Brown and Otis Redding, so the blues was there. Jazz was the next logical step for someone that wanted to get past playing three chords in rock ‘n’ roll bands. The blues is still a key element that I always want to hear in jazz. When it’s not there, something’s wrong.”
He dropped out of college at Montclair State College after a year because the club scene in nearby Newark was thriving, and there was lots of work for eager musicians. His experience with Trudy Pitts led DeVos, with his naturally blues-based guitar stylings, to tenures with the great organists in jazz, many of them gone now, musicians like Richard “Groove” Holmes, Hammond B-3 organist Charles Earland, and Jimmy McGriff. (McGriff lives near Evesboro, in South Jersey, and still performs at jazz festivals.)
After many years as a sideman in organ-based groups, DeVos is now leading his own group. He will be accompanied at the Jazz in the City concert by Dan Kostelnik on Hammond B-3 organ and Steve Johns on drums. The same musicians were on hand to record DeVos’s upcoming album, “Shifting Sands,” which features his own compositions for organ and guitar, and will be released in early October on HighNote/Savant Records of New York City. “My new record will include six of my originals and some standards,” he says, adding saxophonist Eric Alexander is a guest on the record, as is percussionist Gary Fritz. On Tuesday, November 14, he will be doing a live broadcast from J&R Music World in lower Manhattan on
WBGO, 88.3 FM.
Although a veteran of dozens of recording sessions with the likes of organists McGriff and the late Hammond B-3 organist Charles Earland, DeVos has just two albums out under his own name, “Breaking the Ice,” produced by Earland for HighNote Records, and “DeVos’ Groove Guitar” for the Ocean Township-based BluesLeaf Records label.
Earland, a big, jovial man who played fiery organ solos in his various groups, had success converting pop tunes like Stevie Wonder’s “More Today Than Yesterday” as well as with his own compositions. Earland died suddenly from a heart attack in Kansas City in 1999. DeVos had worked with him through most of the 1990s. “It was a huge loss because he was always fun on stage; in fact, the whole band was always a good time on stage,” DeVos says. “I learned many lessons from him but the most important one was that whether there were thousands of people in the audience or one person in the audience, he would always give 300 percent.”
DeVos says “Shifting Sands” “is very important to me because it really is my first chance to have my own vision as a leader on a record, and I selected who I wanted to record on it. I wrote the music specifically with these musicians in mind, so it’s really my vision, whereas the one I had produced by Charles, we co-wrote for it. And when I recorded for BluesLeaf, it was the band I was working with at the time. This new record is completely me. Hopefully, this record will help me get further established as a bandleader.”
DeVos performs most Tuesday nights at Smoke, the uptown New York City jazz club, with various organists. As a bandleader and composer, DeVos says that, “our goal is not to play and recreate the organ sounds of Jimmy Smith. That’s been done. I’m looking at moving ahead with this music and the organ groups I always liked the most were with Larry Young, Grant Green and Elvin Jones. They weren’t playing soul jazz, they were playing jazz, and that’s what I want to do. We’re not trying to recreate their sound, either.”
At the State Theater, an audience unfamiliar with traditional jazz with organ and guitar as center pieces in the music can expect plenty of blues-based jazz, DeVos says. “We’ll be playing blues-based jazz, some tunes from the new record and some standards and some interpretation of some down home blues. You want to try to include all the listeners while keeping your own identifiable sound.”
Jazz in the City, Wednesdays, Sept. 6, 13 and 20, 5 to 7 p.m., outdoors in front of the State Theater 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Free. September 6: Cindy Blackman Quartet. September 13: Valery Ponomarev Quartet. September 20: Bob DeVos’ Organ Now. 732-247-7200. www.bobdevosjazzguitar.com.