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Interviews

Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke

By Published: August 27, 2012
AAJ: The Groover is another outstanding recent recording—kind of similar to Keep the Faith.

ML: I would say Keep the Faith is part two of The Groover. The Groover was such a hit. It was like a number-one hit for months—tons of airplay on jazz radio. And I got lots of gigs off of it; I got festivals, all kinds of people calling me from it. It was really an explosive thing. So I thought, "OK, well, people like it—do it again." And then I did Keep the Faith, and I got nominated as top keyboardist for 2012 by the Jazz Journalists Association, and I won the DownBeat critic's poll as "rising star" on organ. I guess I'm an old star but not a falling star. I'd rather be rising. But, hey, I'll take whatever I can get. It doesn't really mean a whole lot to me, really, because it seems so strange to see Melvin Rhine's name at the bottom of the "rising star" poll, for example. Nonetheless, it's recognition; that's all it is—somebody saying, "We like what you're doing." And that's not bad. I never used to get these kinds of accolades. I've never been the guy in the polls at all. But lately, people are writing articles—DownBeat recently, for one. This is all new ground for me. I've always been the underground guy who everybody likes but the general public doesn't know that well. Not a household name.

Another new album I did is called Up a Step (Cellar Live, 2012), recorded at a club I play in Vancouver, called The Cellar. The gentleman who owns it is a very good tenor saxophonist named Cory Weeds
Cory Weeds
Cory Weeds
b.1973
sax, alto
. It's his record. We did a live record with him and Oliver Gannon, Jesse Cahill—Canadian musicians. We also did a little tour. And I'm going to be going up there again to make a live piano trio record in December. And I'll probably do another organ record for Joe Fields, on Savant in the fall.

The trio record will be with Joe Farnsworth
Joe Farnsworth
Joe Farnsworth
b.1968
drums
and John Webber. It's great because I've never been able to record with them as a trio, and that's been my working trio for years. So I've finally got someone to record us. I've always had to have a big name involved for my other trio records—my last one had Ron Carter
Ron Carter
Ron Carter
b.1937
bass
on it. It's not that I'm against that—I'd just love to do one with my working trio, so, I'm just doing it.

AAJ: Another gig you've done in recent years in New York that not many people know about is playing solo piano in Bryant Park mid-day for a week in the summer. Harold Mabern paid you a visit this year one day, right?

ML: Harold Mabern is awesome. He's my great friend. We talk on the phone all the time, and he's super supportive. Not only is he a monster musician, but he's a beautiful human being. And it's just a joy to be around this guy. He got up and introduced me to the crowd. I finished my set and just waved goodbye. And he stopped me, and he got up and said, "Wait a minute, Mike. I'm going to say, because you're too humble to say it, this is Mike LeDonne!" And he just went off and gave this whole rap about me and told them I played at Smoke and other stuff. That's Harold Mabern, man. He's a beautiful guy. But, see, he can give it up to people because he's so great. When you're great, you can give it up, and say, "Well, you're great. I love your playing." And that's when it really means something.

AAJ: Does playing that gig in Bryant Park give you any ideas about recording a solo piano album?

ML: It does make me think about it. I'd feel a lot better about doing it now than I ever did before. I used to play set arrangements for my solo piano gigs, and then I just felt like it trapped me. I was playing those same tunes the same way. And then I just thought, "To hell with all that." I was just sitting here on that funny little piano in the park, and I was thinking, "Why do all that? Just play!" Also, I think, in my own playing, I've always been trying to open it up. I don't want to get boxed into any one thing. That's called growth, and that's what I want to do for the rest of my life. I push for that. I focus on that. I'm not looking to reinvent the wheel but just to get better and find myself more and feel more comfortable in what I'm doing, more secure and solid. All these things—I feel like it's happening. I can feel it.

I can feel the difference from when I used to play my solo piano gigs years ago. My favorite guy was Hank Jones
Hank Jones
Hank Jones
1918 - 2010
piano
, and I knew all his arrangements. I used to try and play just like Hank Jones, and it was a great learning experience. But then I thought, "How long can you just sit there and play like Hank Jones?" And then I went through a phase where loved Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
Cedar Walton
1934 - 2013
piano
, and I knew his solo piano material. I'd play all his repertoire because I just loved it. It was fun to try and do, and I just didn't feel secure enough about myself yet—about me just playing me. I think that's typical for a lot of musicians. Then I got into McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
McCoy Tyner
b.1938
piano
and Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
Phineas Newborn
1931 - 1989
piano
, and those guys really opened me up. At one point, I was almost starting to think my little McCoyisms were taking over.

I get to this point where I'm really into somebody—I was into Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
Wynton Kelly
1931 - 1971
piano
first. It would be like three years of just him. I mean, I listened to other people. I always listened to Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
and all of the guys who are great—Bill Evans
Bill Evans
Bill Evans
1929 - 1980
piano
and whoever. But Wynton was the one who really lit my fire. So it was three years of finding every record that he was on, listening to every solo that he did, just trying to sound like him—I couldn't, but if I could, I would've sounded just like him because I just loved him so much. And that's basically my style. I get one guy I latch on to and just go for it, for years, until I really get into the depth, into the inside stuff.


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