Dennis Coffey – Hot Coffey in the D (review)

Dennis Coffey – Hot Coffey in the D: Burnin’ at Morey Baker’s Showplace Lounge (Resonance Records) review

A never-before heard jazz/funk club offering from one of Motown’s unsung heroes

Dennis Coffey’s list of credits is enough to make your head spin.  He’s responsible for helping Motown Records take a huge leap forward with his innovative guitar playing on singles like “Psychedelic Shack” from the Temptations and “War” from Edwin Starr.  He also helped discover Rodriguez, the enigmatic singer that was profiled in the recent documentary, Searching For Sugarman.  But this live recording predates all of that, finding Coffey flanked by Lyman Woodard on Hammond B3 organ and Melvin Davis on drums; both were also veterans of the Motown stable of session musicians.

The set begins with the band original, “Fuzz,” an extended jam which showcases Coffey’s  melodic, yet trailblazing style.  This particular track is more rock than anything else here (and the closest to his big solo instrumental hit, “Scorpio,” which he had in 1971).  He always sounds like he’s about to lift off into the stratosphere, but then brings things back down just in time.

The band gives their unique take on several standards.  Who knew “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” could groove?  After introducing the melody, Coffey launches into a gorgeously clean solo.  Then comes Woodard, with Davis pushing things on percussion.  As the three musicians bring things together, the track swells before fading out.  You wish this jam would go on longer.

“The Look of Love” starts out somber and slow, but about halfway through really starts cooking.  This sounds like a completely different song and all three musicians lock into a groove, before slowing things down again.  They throw a curveball with Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage,” showing that all three musicians were well versed in many genres.  Here, again, the musicians start out quietly before reaching dizzying heights (there’s no bass player, yet Woodard manages to reel off some interesting lines with his left hand).

“Casanova (Your Playing Days are Over)” really showcases Coffey’s experimental side – this is a fusion of rock, soul & jazz, with the guitarist really pushing things forward.  The disc closes with a funky take on Ramsey Lewis’ “Wade in the Water” (listen to Davis really let loose during the breakdown near the end).

The sound quality is very good, especially considering how old these tapes are.  And, in true Resonance Records fashion, the accompanying booklet succeeds in telling Coffey’s story from many different sides, including drummer Davis, Coffey-compatriot Mike Theodore, record executive Clarence Avant, soul legend Bettye LaVette, and even Coffey himself.

Hot Coffey in the D offers a chance to shed light on an underrated guitarist.  If you dig this, there’s lots more Dennis Coffey material to delve into.  –Tony Peters