“Straight ahead jazz, no fusion or con-fusion” promised Lou Donaldson on Friday night at the Village Vanguard. Donaldson kept good on his promise, starting with his 50s classic “Blues Walk” and running through a set of the hard bop and soul jazz for which he’s famous.
As the nominal head of his quartet, Donaldson was the show’s star personality, working through a set of tunes and jokes (Viagra, 50 Cent, “when Miles still played jazz”) that the internet tells me has seen little change in years. Donaldson’s playing is a joy to hear, but at this point he sits back (literally) to let the younger musicians come forward. Though he certainly keeps up on his sax, at 83 years old Donaldson’s in more of a torch-passing role than a trailblazing one.
The younger players’ technical prowess shined on speedy jams like “Fast & Freaky” and “The Alligator Bogaloo,” which were broken up by slower songs “What a Wonderful World” or the plodding blues of “Whiskey Drinking Woman.”
The show was far from unpredictable. Reviews show that Donaldson tours with a limited set list, and every song had the same format — Donaldson intro, guitar solo, organ solo, Donaldson with drum fills (maybe a solo), ensemble to close. Structure and timbre were relatively static, with the exception of an extended drum solo by Fukushi Tainaka. “You can tell by his name he’s from Alabama.” This music was all about rhythmic and melodic dynamism.
While Lou Donaldson took the lead, Tainaka expanded the music’s sonic horizons, and guitarist Randy Johnston wowed the crowd with his blazing runs, it was probably organist Pat Bianchi who brought the most unique element to the group.
Bianchi performed behind a mysterious Hammond with an alien Leslie rotor amp, complete with exposed tubes that I watched heat up before the show. It was a great sound to hear live, and Bianchi is an intense and soulful player, beginning his solos with a few way-finding stabs and ramping into nonsensically virtuosic bop grooves.
Although I don’t share Donaldson’s disdain for “fusion and con-fusion” and prefer jazz that he might deny is even part of the genre, it was good to get a break from the usual madness and hear a few traditional virtuosos do their thing.
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Photo by Flickr user gnta.