Since Hammond B-3 specialist Lonnie Smith left Blue Note in the '70s, the largely self-taught musician has added the "Dr." to his name, adopted a traditional Sikh turban as a distinctive, if enigmatic style choice (it's unclear if he follows the religion), and continued to release a steady stream of highly regarded soulful well before the 21st century came around. With 2016's Evolution, Smith returns to Blue Note, his first studio album for the label since 1970's Drives. Produced by Don Was, Evolution is one of the most robust albums of his career. Where his previous few albums found him working in a trio format, on Evolution, Was surrounds Smith with various small group configurations featuring a bevy of post-bop, funk, and soul-ready musicians including drummers Jonathan Blake and Joe Dyson, guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, trumpeters Keyon Harrold and Maurice Brown, and others. Also joining Smith here are several jazz luminaries including genre-bending pianist Robert Glasper, whose glassy piano tone rubs nicely against Smith's burnished Hammond warmth on "Play It Back." Similarly, saxophonist Joe Lovano, who first made his debut on Smith's 1975 effort Afrodesia, joins in on several cuts, including a reworking of "Afrodesia" and the slow-jam ballad "For Heaven's Sake." While Smith is the star of Evolution, the expanding group sound works well with his expansive approach to funk-jazz and the cuts with Harrold and Brown bring to mind the energetic hip-hop-inflected jazz of the Roots. Ultimately, it's Smith's juicy, nuanced, Hammond B-3 sound, deepened by over 50 years of experience, that makes Evolution such a career pinnacle.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar