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.
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
“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.
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 -
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.