Good Gracious: Lou Donaldson

Good Gracious Lou Donaldson cover

Stuff happens and time has flown by since the last post on downwithit.info but it is anticipated that the site will benefit from more frequent updates from now on. I’ll kick off, on the first day of August 2015, with a quick look at this relatively straightforward set from Lou Donaldson. At 18.30 on 1st August 2015, just under two years after starting downwithit.info, I’ve finally received 10,000 visits to the site, so I’ll drink to that later.

I haven’t posted about one of Lou’s albums before, mainly because I’m not the greatest fan of alto sax. Without trotting out a whole series of prejudices, suffice to say that my introduction to playing tenor sax was in a Jazz workshop where all the other sax players were on alto and the tunes that we were handed were frequently Charlie Parker classics, most of which start with fast and fluent phrases, requiring the altoist to play with both alacrity and dexterity. Of course, they were in the key of E Flat and since tenor is in the key of B Flat and my transposing skills were poor, I was onto a loser (or a very steep learning curve, if you like) from the b of the bang.

Couple my own nonsense with the standard response to Lou Donaldson, which is that his music is generally light, unsophisticated with little technical adventurousness and there is a case explaining why I’ve not given his recordings much of a listen. However, over the next year or so, I will attempt to give him a fair hearing.

Donaldson joined the New York jazz scene in the late 1940’s. Although his love of blues and pre-bop stylings was never lost and was to serve him well throughout his career, Charlie Parker was a very strong influence. He played alongside his idol and had many conversations about music with him. He is quoted in Kenny Mathieson’s ‘Cookin’: Hard Bop and Soul Jazz 1954-65′ as saying: “He made a big, big impression on me, at least in a musical sense”. His next statement, a sober comment on Parker’s heroin addiction, suggests that he successfully avoided the then common fallacy that abuse of narcotics was what gave Parker his edge as a musician and the route to be followed if he was to be emulated.

Joe Goldberg’s sleeve notes offer some explanation of the musical course that Donaldson was charting at this stage. He notes the importance of the club circuit ‘… where patrons are laughing, talking, drinking; enjoying themselves rather than listening to the music with solemnly exclusive attention.’ He then says that Donaldson has attempted to offer something different in the social lounge setting: ‘His playing evidences more reserve and control than the emotion-dispensers whose honking and shrieking has tended to label anyone who works in this format.’ So LD was seeking the middle ground between the club and the concert hall and perhaps that captures the dilemma. By being neither in one genre or the other, he is easy for the critic to pass over ((for example Richard Cook barely mentioned this stage of LD’s career in ‘Blue Note Records: The Biography’). LD, however, was candid in his view that he was happy with regular live work and steady album sales and that he had not wish to be a starving, though unheard and unrewarded, cutting-edge genius.

Good Gracious was recorded on 24 January 1963. It finds Lou Donaldson presiding on alto over a trio of Hammond organ, guitar and drums, featuring early appearances in the careers of Patton and Green, who, as well we know were to become Blue Note stalwarts.

Bad John sets a bright opening fast blues tempo. Although Donaldson starts off with a light intro, the piece becomes a vehicle for first, John Patton on Hammond and then Grant Green’s guitar. Lou’s own solo is fluent, yet unchallenging, though easy on the ear.

The sanctified organ on the slow gospel blues The Holy Ghost takes us off to the land where it is perpetually Sunday morning. Lou’s alto sound here is melodic, shading towards the saccharine.

Cherry, a Don Redman tune harks back to an earlier era of 30’s swing and Donaldson’s solo quotes but does not launch into detailed exploration of a series of bebop phrases.

Caracas is, as the name suggests, a nod to bossa nova. LD had recorded an earlier version, years earlier, in the mid-50s during his well-regarded sextet date with Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey from 1954. I’m not familiar with that incarnation, yet, so I can’t currently comment on it.

Good Gracious is finger-snapping jump jazz featuring some gorgeous guitar from Grant Green. If ever a tune was calling out for a blistering solo from a saxophonist, this is one. LD’s is fast and fluid but again a little thin on excitement. What do you think?

Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me, a ballad made famous as part of Billy Holliday’s songbook and written by Rube Bloom and Ted Koehler (incidentally, Koehler wrote the lyrics to the great standard song, Stormy Weather). Once again, Grant Green takes a memorable solo, played with exquisite restraint that is matched by Lou Donaldson’s own contribution.

As our quick tour through Good Gracious has shown, the set is one of those Blue Notes which attempts to cover all bases and on a cursory listen fails to impress as it shifts from juke box to standard to Bossa to ballad, although the six tracks do include four LD original compositions. Despite that it is an album which you may consider to repay a little extended listening, in which the variety it offers eventually becomes a virtue. That said, it is probably one for the seasoned collector rather than a stand-alone purchase for somebody new to the genre. As I’ve said above, well return to consider other Lou Donaldson sets in the not too distant future.

Cover photography was by Ronnie Braithwaite, brother of Strich specialist George Braith. Some will view it as an image, which is inexcusably sexist, while others may chose to interpret it differently. While a full consideration of its semiotics would perhaps be of interest, I’ve got to get this blog post out now and I’ll not offer up my tuppence worth now.

The band etc: Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); Grant Green (guitar); John Patton (organ); Ben Dixon (drums). Recorded: 23 January 1963. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Produced: Alfred Lion. Recorded: Rudy Van Gelder. Sleeve Notes: Joe Goldberg. Cover design: Reid Miles. Cover photos: Ronnie Braithwaite. Model: Rose Nelmes (Grandasssa Models). Issued as Blue Note 84125.

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