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Mike LeDonne - Then and Now


Eric Alexander - Tenor Sax
Jim Rotondi - Trumpet

Peter Washington - Bass

Joe Farnsworth - Drums

1. Then and Now
2. The Sorcerer
3. Trane Song
4. Schism
5. Round Midnight
6. Seeds
7. Continuum
8. Insight
9. Little Millie’s hat
Total Time 66:27

Listen to CD Tracks

The first time I heard Mike LeDonne I was immediately impressed with the fluency of his musical language.  To be a complete pianist conversant in the modern jazz idiom, one must come to terms with the myriad ramifications of such a richly rooted tradition.  And LeDonne, both then and now, understands.  He has true blues feeling, great time, and impeccable taste, but what really impresses me is LeDonne’s depth.  He is honest and direct.  His art continues to develop from within and every note means something.  His knowledge of the roots of jazz contributes to music that has a sense of values, but his reverence for tradition doesn’t trap him in the past.  LeDonne’s music goes further.  His music is classic, speaking both for our time and all time.

 “Then and Now” - From the opening fanfare, one can hear that this is a “take no prisoners” band.  There are many who can compose but few who are inspired, authentic composers.  LeDonne certainly belongs to the latter group.  These aren’t just lead sheets; everyone has a part as in any seminal chamber music.  Like Kenny Dorham, Benny Golson, Cedar Walton, and Horace Silver, LeDonne is a master at composing for the classic jazz quintet.  The stop time section and his fiendish octave run give this up-tempo composition an original stamp and an element of surprise.  LeDonne plays some wild linear ideas at the top of his chorus.  I love the way he takes it out and then brings it right back in with a strong and earthy rhythmic motif supported with fat left hand chord voicings.  The piano solo is seamless and the rhythm section is popping.  Eric Alexander contributes a commanding solo.  Alexander plays the full range of his instrument.  There is a moment at the end of his solo where he takes his horn into the highest register exemplifying his ability to play with total abandon without ever losing control.  Alexander has virtuosity, fearlessness, and a consistency which explains why he is increasingly becoming known as one of the best tenors in the business.  Jim Rotondi follows with a strong solo in which his colorful notes illuminate the composition’s harmony.  The first thing that strikes me about Rontondi’s playing is his beautiful sound.  Also, his playing has space and it dances.  His rhythmic concept is loose and relaxed but he can also dig in with intensity.  Rotondi and Alexander both have sounds and conceptions which artfully complement each other throughout the date.

 “Sorcerer” - LeDonne has ingeniously re-scored this piece in six-four as opposed to its original four-four time.  This innovation along with a slower tempo than either Herbie Hancock’s or Miles Davis’s recordings gives more time to uncover the nuances of Hancock’s haunting composition.  LeDonne takes a beautiful solo which really breathes.  I appreciate his fertile choice of notes and his sense of color.  “Sorcerer” shows us a more impressionistic side of LeDonne’s playing.  This take also demonstrates how sensitively the quintet listens to each other.  Peter Washington and Joe Farnsworth interact in a way that shows their deep understanding of Ron Carter’s and Tony Williams’s major contributions to the modern rhythm section.  But this is no copy; this rhythm section plays with it’s own personality.  Each soloist plays imaginatively and blends into the next.  A particularly nice moment is the way the tenor solo dovetails into the beginning of the piano solo.

 “Trane Song” - LeDonne’s paean to Coltrane begins with a rubato section reminiscent of Coltrane’s out-of-tempo ruminations.  What follows is a groover that alternates between six-eight and four-four.  The vamp which sets up the beginning of each soloist’s chorus is instantly memorable.  The tenor takes up the first phrase of the melody and then is joined on the next phrase by the trumpet.  LeDonne takes a great solo that builds organically out of the composition’s  rhythmic hook  and then gets down to some hard swinging when the rhythm section kicks into four-four.  Alexander jumps right in and takes an incredible solo.  Check out the gutsiness of those low notes at the top of his second chorus.  He has tuned into Coltranes intensity and made it his own. Rotondi eases into his solo with soulful medolic ideas and then plays with serious fire at the top of his second chorus. Notice how he uses just the right amount of blues at the end of his solo.  Rotondi understands the adage that the person who curses the most has the fewest words at his command.

 “Schism” - ”Schism” is another groover infused with the blues and a feeling of forward motion.  The blowing section reminds me of Thad Jones with its elusive form that incorporates common harmonic progressions in an uncommon way.  It’s not what you play, its how you play it.  This track affords us our first opportunity on this CD to hear the brilliant solo work of Peter Washington.  I can’t come up with enough superlatives to describe Washington’s musicianship.  It’s easy to see just why he is one of the most sought after bassists on the scene today.  “Schism” ends on a happy groove which hearkens back to LeDonne’s first recording as a leader (“’Bout Time” on Criss Cross Jazz).  On that recording, it was just a fifty-two second epilogue at the end of the album.  This time we here it augmented by Alexander’s melodic horn line played under LeDonne’s swinging piano soloing.

 “Round Midnight” - LeDonne gives us a fresh reading of Monk’s hit tune.  This is no small task given the number of recordings already out there, many of which have become classics in their own right.  Does LeDonne take the rout of de-constructing the harmonic material or reharmonizing the composition beyond all recognition?  Decidedly not.  Rather it is LeDonne’s conviction behind each note that breaths such life into this performance.  Like all major pianists, LeDonne pays careful attention to the sound and shadings he gets out of the piano.  After a passionate solo introduction, LeDonne is joined by Washington and Farnsworth.  As a trio, they build from one level of intensity to the next, unobtrusively allowing the music to play itself.  These musicians know how to listen.  Nothing is forced.  This is about as good as piano trio playing gets.

 “Seeds” - The seed I think LeDonne is referring to is the small motivic phrase which he so skillfully develops into this composition.  This track grooves from the get-go.  Rotondi, Alexander, and LeDonne all get right down to business.  It is an uncommon art in this day and age to play with brevity, but these
players all know how to craft a short solo that really tells a story.  This is just another testament to the maturity and unselfishness with which the players approach the music.  Also worthy of note is LeDonne’s great comping throughout this track, always interesting but never intrusive or self-serving.  Farnsworth and Washington give the soloists just the right cushion to play over.  I enjoy hearing the way Farnsworth’s ideas and personality musically effervesce just at the right time, never sacrificing the groove or getting in the way.  Washington and Farnsworth strike the perfect balance between interacting and accompanying.

 “Continuum” - Peter Washington starts this one with an unaccompanied improvised solo which serves as a prologue for the piece that follows.  Washington’s powerful and singular sound, his sense of form, and his deep feeling make this a satisfying and evocative moment.  What follows is a modal composition that moves between three harmonic regions, kind of like a modal minor blues.  Farnsworth gets into a groove reminiscent of  Vernel Fournier’s classic feel on “Ponciana.”  All the players solo with a strong point of view and an inherent understanding of what this piece is about.  Once again, it strikes me that in addition to being a first rate soloist,  LeDonne is also a great comper.  On the second trumpet chorus, listen how Rotondi takes off on the ideas LeDonne initiates  in the rhythm section.  Farnsworth demonstrates the rarely practiced virtue of  crafting a percussion solo built on the foundation of the composition.

 “Insight” - One hears LeDonne’s insight into the history of modern jazz in this up-tempo composition.  I hear strains of Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven” and Coltrane’s “Moments Notice” and “Giant Steps,” but the result is pure LeDonne.  LeDonne, Rotondi, and Alexander all navigate through the changes with ease.  The rhythm section alternates effortlessly between this composition’s rhythmic hook and a bright four-four.  Farnsworth once again shows his good sense of form and imagination in his solo chorus.  The tune fades out with LeDonne blowing over the open vamp.

 “Little Millie’s Hat” - This has an easy after-hours blues feel.  Everyone swings hard and dances through the form.  Some serious commitment to all four beats is laid down by the rhythm section.  Check out the moment on Rotondi’s bridge where Farnsworth gets into a Blakeyesque semi-shuffle and everything clicks.  If you can't tap your foot to this one, then a trip to a neurologist is in order.

 The more I listen to this CD, the more there is to hear.  LeDonne’s playing and writing are both memorable and meaningful.  LeDonne and the quintet succeed on many levels.  These are young masters - team players with mutual respect, integrity, focus, and above all, feeling.  This is forever music built on quality and truth - music that contributes to a better world, which is, to me, what great art is all about.

 Bill Charlap - March ‘99

 Bill Charlap is a jazz pianist who has played with such artists as Tony Bennett, Gerry Mulligan and Jim Hall. He is currently a member of the Phil Woods Quintet.