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Mike LeDonne: The Groover

Jack Bowers By

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So who knew that Mike LeDonne is actually a Jazz organist cleverly disguised as a pianist? Well, for starters, the folks who've been coming to see him perform regularly at Smoke, the New York City nightclub where he's been the house organist for more than a decade. As it turns out, LeDonne's not a garden-variety organist but an earnest Groover in the image of his main role model, the late Charles Earland. It's no accident that LeDonne has enlarged his trio (guitarist Peter Bernstein, drummer Joe Farnsworth) for this studio date by inviting tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander to sit in, as Alexander not only spent his formative years in Chicago as a member of Earland's quintet but made his recorded debut in 1991 on the organist's album, Unforgettable.

With LeDonne scorching the Hammond B3, Alexander adding heat to the proceedings at every turn and Bernstein and Farnsworth stoking the boiler room, this is an album that grooves emphatically from the outset—the sort of session that surely would have caused Earland to grin from ear to ear. Flag-wavers are among the staples of such narratives, and here we have two, both written by LeDonne—"Blues for McCoy (Tyner)" and "Bopsolete." To say they cook up a storm would be an understatement, but no more so than to argue that, say, "Rock with You," "Sunday in New York," "The Groover" or "On the Street Where You Live" are less impassioned in their own way.

All is not fire and brimstone, however, as the quartet slackens the pace and lowers the temperature on LeDonne's "Deep Blue" and Benny Golson's "Little Mary," the last written for LeDonne's daughter, who has Prader-Willie Syndrome, a relatively uncommon genetic disorder that affects one's metabolism and growth. LeDonne proves to be as fluent and resourceful on the organ as he is at the piano, while Alexander underscores—as though he had to—why he is one of the more captivating and creative tenor soloists on the scene today. Bernstein and Farnsworth have their moments too, and make the most of them with phrases that invariably command one's awareness and esteem.

By bringing into play the Hammond B3, LeDonne has nimbly laid bare a relatively uncharted aspect of his musical persona, and it's one that is sure to please. Long may he groove.

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