Lou Donaldson Quartet at Birdland
Lou Donaldson: alto saxophone, Dr. Lonnie Smith: Hammond B3, Randy Johnston: guitar, Fukushi Tainaka: drums
April 8, 2006
Birdland was packed for the 9 PM show, reinforcing the need to get there early in order to get a good table. While the sound is good everywhere, being front and center, barely thirty feet away from the stage heightens the impact.
Lou Donaldson was a giant of the hard bop/soul jazz era and cut his teeth on bebop. He had a long recording career on Blue Note (see this bio and discography and Blue Note Records). Mosaic Records also has reissued his Blue Notes for the years 1957-60.
The set was a delightful mix of showbiz and solid, cooking mainstream jazz. The tunes ranged from straight down-home blues to "Star Eyes" to a couple of Donaldson's trademark hits from the sixties. Donaldson himself was in fine form, just killing "Ornithology" or singing the blues.
Solo honors followed the usual pattern with Donaldson starting things off ("One, two, you know what to do"), then handing things over to Randy Johnston, then Lonnie Smith before returning to trade fours with Tainaka and take it out. The four have played and recorded with Donaldson and each other, so the camaraderie was palpable.
Regardless of its predictability, the playing was of the highest quality. Johnston was beyond solid, playing with an incisiveness and effortless dexterity. He negotiated the changes with very few "licks" but lots of soul and musicianship. The Doctor, Lonnie Smith, in just being his usual turbaned self, captured the stage with his magnetism and deep organ groove even when he would interject an "organ shout"; he is the master of this idiom. The deep swing of various kinds was supplied by Tainaka, who smiled his way through the set and amazed everyone with an outstanding drum solo that brought cheers.
Two pros that have been playing for almost fifty years each, supported by two younger players who have gotten inside the style, put out some wonderful feel-good jazz, that also satisfied the musical appetite. They clearly enjoyed playing for the audience, and the audience really enjoyed being there.