Mike LeDonne: Where There’s Smoke

Bob Kenselaar By

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The moment you want to get to is where all the influences are just kind of flowing, and then it’s you. That’s the thing.
Mike LeDonne has more than made his mark in jazz over the years, on both piano and organ. One of the New York jazz scene's premier instrumentalists, he's long been a favorite of fellow musicians. "He is incredible," said the late Oscar Peterson, who once described how he would rush to hear LeDonne play every night on a jazz-cruise gig that featured both musicians on the bill. First known mainly for his piano work, LeDonne has increased his profile as an organ player considerably, to the point where it may be eclipsing his reputation as a pianist. His hugely popular organ quartet recording, The Groover (Savant, 2010), was the number-one album on the jazz radio charts for 14 weeks in the year it was released. Both The Groover and its 2011 follow-up, Keep the Faith, feature LeDonne's regular band, which has held court virtually every Tuesday night since the year 2000 at Smoke, the New York City jazz club on Broadway near the corner of 106th Street, also known as Duke Ellington Boulevard.

LeDonne is especially happy with his long tenure at the club. "It's an extraordinary thing to have a steady gig like that and then to see people still coming out in droves to listen. And now the word is out all over the world—people know Tuesday night is organ night at Smoke. They come to New York just to see it. They come right off the plane from Europe and go right to Smoke." Not only does the club draw crowds of fans, but great elder statesmen of jazz such as Lou Donaldson, Frank Wess and George Coleman often drop by and sometimes sit in with LeDonne. "I'm so proud of that," he says. "If I can attract people like that, I must be doing something right."

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1956, LeDonne grew up in his parents' music shop; his father, Mickey, was a jazz guitarist who also sang in the style of Nat "King" Cole. After earning his degree at the New England Conservatory, the keyboardist settled in New York City in the late '70s, and he's been based there ever since.

His experience spans an impressively wide range of jazz styles from traditional swing to modern post-bop. Very early in his career, he was a member of the Widespread Depression Orchestra, playing classic charts of the swing era, and before long, he was playing with Benny Goodman. In the early '80s, he was the house pianist at Jimmy Ryan's, a mainstay of New York's traditional jazz scene at the time, and he went on to work with the Art Farmer-Clifford Jordan Quintet in addition to playing with Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Rollins, among many others. His 11-year stint with Milt Jackson is especially notable—LeDonne ultimately served as the musical director of the vibraphonist's working band—as is his long association with Benny Golson. He appears on the saxophonist's New Time, New 'Tet (Concord, 2009) album and three other Golson CDs. Under his own name, LeDonne has recorded 14 albums with featured personnel including Ron Carter, Joshua Redman and Lewis Nash, in addition to his colleagues at Smoke, together known as The Groover Quartet, comprising Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein, and Joe Farnsworth.

All About Jazz: Your 12-year organ gig at Smoke must set some kind of record.

Mike LeDonne: Smoke is my home in New York. I love Smoke. That's where you hear guys still going for it and playing real jazz music all the time. They allow swing. They allow the blues. They love all of it there, and you can't find that kind of variety in a lot of places these days. Everybody's trying to move the music forward, and so we're getting away from what are the true, deep roots of the music—the blues and the African-American tradition—which, to me, is a sin. I always say it's good to go forward, but we need to go up, too. You go forward, and you can fall off a cliff. You need to bring the music up and stay true to its roots. That is huge in my mind, in my heart and in what I play. I'm going for that feeling at the heart of the music, because I know that feeling from playing with the guys I've played with and from listening to the music all my life. That's what got me into it—the feeling. I didn't know what they were doing. I didn't know what Wynton Kelly was playing. But I knew that feeling was giving me something that I wanted to be able to give someone else.

Smoke is a place where I've been able to develop my organ style for 12 years now. You know, I've been playing organ since I was 14—10, really, but I got a Hammond B3 when I was 14. My father owned a music store. So I've been playing it all this time, but I always kept it in the background. I really didn't want to change my vibe with it by getting out and being all serious with it. I didn't want to get in the arena and be in competition with the other guys out there, but when I played at Smoke, they just threw me in the ring. It was supposed to be a four-week engagement, and it turned into 12 years.

And I don't just do the Tuesday-night organ gig—I do weekends there, too, sometimes, and get involved in the other music they present there. It's all real jazz, and it's the kind of jazz where people walk in and say, "I didn't know this was jazz." They're surprised because it feels so good. They might have been to one of the other big-name clubs around town and felt like they were in church on Sunday. At Smoke, you can really have fun. And you can talk, too. Sometimes it might be a little too much for my taste, but I don't want to take that away. I like people to enjoy themselves. That's what jazz was. I'm sure when Charlie Parker was playing, they didn't go around shushing people. People were quiet because he was just playing so much stuff.

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 together—it 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 gig—and they're great players—but 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 modern—with his own conception and his own harmonic devices and all—but 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 it—it'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 Midwest—a lot of the jazz festivals all around. It's all part of what I do—and I've been doing it for 35 years, now. I go to Europe regularly—Italy 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 Big 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 house—you 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.



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