Mike LeDonne Groover Quartet: Wonderful!

Accompanied by Eric Alexander, Vincent Herring, Peter Bernstein and a gospel choir, the NY organist reminds of the Hammond's churchy roots

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It was with pride and a twinkle in his eyes that pianist and organist Mike LeDonne talked with Jazz Journal about his daughter Mary four years ago, who is non-verbal and legally blind and the inspiration behind the 66-year-old vital veteran’s annual Disability Pride Parade in New York City. Her picture is on the front cover of this, LeDonne’s latest organ record.

His Groover Quartet, consisting of Eric Alexander, Peter Bernstein and Joe Farnsworth, is augmented with a gospel choir, which may sound surprising but actually makes perfect sense, considering the Hammond organ’s origins in church. On the album’s gospel opener Let Us Go, which also features alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, it delivers an enthusiastic call to arms: “Let us go-o-o, come on, go with me.” The sound of the choir’s no-nonsense hymns takes some getting used to but eventually grows on you as the icing on LeDonne’s tasteful groove-jazz cake.

The enticing menu further includes the funky potboiler Put It Back and Twinkies Organ Prelude/Wonderful, which develops from an introduction that reminds of Just A Little Walk With Thee into the sort of light-footed, churchy groove that the late Brother Jack McDuff regularly put to wax in the 1960s. Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water is a delicious highpoint. The gospel-inspired pop classic is recreated as a sassy shuffle with a thumping bass line and wonderfully crafted work from ace guitarist Peter Bernstein, appealing as the shimmering waters of Lake Como.

LeDonne, alumnus of Milt Jackson and Benny Golson groups and pinnacle of New York post-bop, usually adds the odd progressive standard to his Groover Quartet records. Here it is John Coltrane’s Lonnie’s Lament. LeDonne’s version, while thriving on Trane’s changes, is clearly a celebration of the late organ-wizard Lonnie Smith, embellished as it is with Smith’s trademark percussive tricks. The other standout non-choir track is LeDonne’s own modal Genesis, a sizzling and fast-paced flagwaver that inspires tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander to produce a typically eventful excursion into the harmonic territory of his mentor George Coleman.

LeDonne covers all bases as an organist and takes vivid solos with a head and a tail throughout. Jazz buffs love to rave about past legends but often forget to praise their contemporaries in the process. The truth is that the continuously top-rate and soulful Mike LeDonne is one of the masters of his era. And it doesn’t look like he’s letting up.


Discography
Let Us Go; Lonnie’s Lament; Twinkies Organ Prelude/Wonderful; Put It Back; Bridge Over Troubled Water; Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing; Make Someone Happy; Genesis (56.03)
LeDonne (org); Eric Alexander (ts); Vincent Herring (as); Peter Bernstein (elg); Joe Farnsworth (d); Daniel Sadownick (pc); Carolyn Leonhart, JD Walter, La Tanya Hall a.o. (choir). Englewood Cliffs, 23 & 24 March 2023.
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