More than 30 years after Brian Auger’s original Oblivion Express was a leader in decimating the boundaries between rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and the funkier side of jazz, a reappraisal of his work is certainly in order. Organist Auger remains a fierce and inventive force on the keys, as he romped through his own material, ’60s jazz funk and a little gospel before a packed house Friday at the Baked Potato.
Sadly ignored by rock and jazz camps years after landing hits in both genres with the same material, Auger has been trapped in a curious middle ground; what he played in his prime grew to be cursed as fusion and then later embraced as acid jazz. Regardless, he remains an incomparable grinding and grooving keyboardist.
The performance by Auger, who may well be the only person to have opened for both Herbie Hancock and Led Zeppelin, celebrated the release of “Auger Rhythms,” a two-CD career overview on Serious/Quicksilver Records that stretches from his early ’60s London bebop days through the OE’s early ’70s prime. Sessions from 1999, four years after he reformed the band with son Karma on drums and daughter Savannah singing, are also included.
Friday’s first set included prime Auger material: His early 1970s radio hit “Straight Ahead”; his swaying rendition of Wes Montgomery’s boogalooo classic “Bumpin’ on Sunset”; and a sweaty rendition of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Auger’s playing was aggressive and meaty, as grounded in the classics as he is forward thinking. He’s far rootsier than his rock peers from back in the day (Keith Emerson, for example), and much more willing to wholly adopt rock and R&B rhythms than the jazz masters like Jimmy Smith.
While Karma Auger retains the locked-in beat of Auger’s recordings and Chris Bolden cements the bottom end on bass, Savannah proves to be the act’s weak link. She is, in “American Idol” parlance, “pitchy” and offers neither the detached spirit of Auger cohorts such as Julie Driscoll nor a gritty and bruised Janis Joplin-esque voice that would pair with the organ like a great Cabernet and a steak. Act would also benefit from the reintroduction of percussion.
Auger performs June 1 at the Tribeca club in New York.