Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke
AAJ: Can you tell us a little bit about the guys in the band: Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Joe Farnsworth?
ML: Peter, Joe and Eric and I were playing together long before Smoke. They're all about 10 years younger than me. I met them when I was playing around already, and they were just kids going to school, really. Then we started playing togetherit must be 20 years ago. And we're great pals. We've been through all this stuff together, been all over the world together. We've had our kids during the Smoke gig. We've grown old together. It's like an old married couple, kind of. We fight, and we make up and all that kind of stuff. But Peter is my favorite guitarist, and Joe's my favorite drummer, and Eric is my favorite saxophonist. And that's not to put anyone else down. That's just me. So, it was very lucky for me to have my favorite guys in my group and with me all the time.
AAJ: Does Eric Alexander's experience with Charles Earland mean a lot, working in the organ context?
ML: Of course, because not only did that make him know what to do, but it's so nice to have someone who loves that kind of music. You have to have that. I've had a lot of people ask me to do the gigand they're great playersbut I can tell when they don't really love this kind of stuff. It's not really their favorite thing, but they want a gig, and they want to make the money, and that's cool, too. But it's so much better when somebody's really in love with this kind of thing and just knows what to do. Eric can do anything, but what I love about him is not only is he modernwith his own conception and his own harmonic devices and allbut he also has a lot of Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, Dexter Gordon in him. And, of course, George Coleman is a huge influence on him, and George is so soulful. He comes up there all the time. Not only is he an innovator, but he's so soulful and great. He's my buddy. And Lou Donaldson comes up all the time. Frank Wess was in there last night. And so it's become like a scene. . . . I mean, if I can attract people like that, something's got to be going right. You can criticize itit's not perfect, you know. But, hey, if those guys like it, it's got to be pretty good.
AAJ: Where else have you been playing lately outside of New York?
ML: Well, I've done the Detroit Jazz Festival a couple of years in a row, the Chicago Jazz Festival, some other festivals in the Midwesta lot of the jazz festivals all around. It's all part of what I doand I've been doing it for 35 years, now. I go to Europe regularlyItaly and Germany. I have a trip to Germany in September, just going to go there by myself this time. That's a new thing; usually I bring my own group, but there are some musicians based there who want me to come and play with them, so I'll go try it.
AAJ: You have some recent recordings out Keep the Faith (Savant, 2011), and there's a great new record you're on with Eric Alexander and Vincent Herring as co-leaders, Friendly Fire (High Note, 2012). On Keep the Faith, you have a number of original compositions.
ML: Well, it's all stuff that I come up with at Smoke. I have that luxury of trying things out there. I write every day. I love writing as much I do playing, really. So I write stuff every day, and a lot of it just goes in the delete box. But I'll get something that I think is pretty cool, and I'll bring it in and try it, and then it still may go in the delete box if people don't like it. The tunes on the record are tried and true, what I call "hits."
The tune "Keep the Faith" itself is by Charlie Earland. I wrote a tune for John Patton on there, called "Big John," which is sort of in memory of him and his style. I wrote a tune for my daughter, Mary, on there, called "Waiting for You," which is what we're always doing, waiting for her to do something. "Scratching" is an old one. I recorded that on Criss Cross a long time ago. Harold Mabern's been hearing it for years, and he just realized it's written over "Just in Time" changes about two weeks ago. Peter Bernstein quoted "Just in Time" in it, and he said, "Hey, all this time I've been listening to it, I didn't realize it was 'Just in Time.'"
"Burner's Idea" is for Charlie Earland. It's a little lick that I heard him play once, and I just made a tune out of it. And that's what I do. I just try and come up with something that fits the group and is not too hard, because we never rehearse. We have never rehearsed. We play every week, but still, you bring in something to read on the gig and it's a packed houseyou can't stop and describe how there's a hit on the and of four here, or you have to watch for a key change there, or whatever. It's got to all just lay out and play itself, be that kind of tune. In a way, it's limiting what I can do, but it's been a good limitation because it's made me think simpler and come up with stuff that actually sounds like songs and stuff that is still interesting and challenging to play.