June 5, 2010

Plenty of Sugar - Lou Donaldson Live

Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing saxophonist Lou Donaldson live at the San Francisco Jazz Festival. Donaldson is an icon of the soul-jazz genre and at 83 is still playing great music. As Donaldson once put it, “Blues is the backbone, and if you don’t have it in jazz, it’s like taking sugar out of a cake.” This could be taken as the solemn oath of soul-jazz. Before recording as a leader, Donaldson played with a who’s who of jazz luminaries in the early 1950s, including Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Jimmy Smith, Clifford Brown, and Milt Jackson. This is where he cut his teeth in bop and hard bop.
Blues Walk     The concert opened with “Blues Walk,” the title tune from his 1958 album and his self-acknowledged theme song. This is a relaxed, swinging groove that perfectly embodies the soul-jazz ethos. Donaldson, unapologetically, doesn’t stray from this soulful and bluesy source. As he stated, “We’re gonna play straight-ahead jazz. No fusion, no confusion.”
     Ably backed by organ, guitar, and drums, Donaldson played a couple of his all-time hits, “Alligator Boogaloo” and “Gravy Train.” He also humorously sang some down-home blues, including “Whisky-Drinkin’ Woman,” and the audience discovered that he does a mean Louis Armstrong impression on “What a Wonderful World.” He displayed his bop chops on Charlie Parker’s “We” and showed his lyrical side on a rendition of “L-O-V-E.” A terrific version of “Bye Bye Blackbird” rounded out the evening. (An earlier live version of Donaldson playing this tune can be heard here.) All in all, it was an evening of sheer joy, with plenty of sugar in the cake.

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