In late 2015, Doug MacDonald released "Solo Plus" (Blujazz Productions) in the phenomenally risky format of solo Jazz guitar but turned in a brilliant performance and recording. Now MacDonald takes on the marathon big band format and scores yet again. The guy can do anything.
Don Thomson explains in the liner notes the concept of the “Jazz marathon” as utilizing “two rhythm sections, so that the music would be continuous. The musicians improvised on standards, and played three short written arrangements. To create variety, the tenor, alto, and guitar all had feature numbers, and on other tunes, the horns were combined in various pairings. The audience, a packed house, was really into the music. Their spirit spilled over into the band, and created a special energy and synergy. The intimate setting of the club, while at first seemingly awkward, contributed to the ambience. It was, altogether, a magical experience.”
That collection of great LA Jazz artists includes Lanny Morgan (alto sax), Rickey Woodard (tenor sax), Bob Summers (trumpet), Les Benedict (trombone), Doug MacDonald (guitar), Andy Langham (piano, tracks 4-7, 11, 12), Llew Matthews (piano, tracks 1-3, 8-10), Luther Hughes (bass, tracks 4-7, 11, 12), John B. Williams (tracks 1-3, 8-10), Paul Kreibich (drums, tracks 4-7, 11, 12), and Roy McCurdy (drums, tracks 1-3, 8-10). The album was recorded live at redwhite+bluezz in Pasadena, CA on September 2, 2014. It is released on two CDs.
“Just for Fun” kicks off with a Doug MacDonald original, “Unimpressed.” The rhythm section of Matthews, Williams and McCurdy are joined by all the horns and guitar. McCurdy’s drums start off the show and the full horn section comes into play. Summers’ trumpet lead is a smoking bit as John B. Williams works over the upright bass just the way you like it. Rickey Woodard’s tenor sax spirals forward to the handoff to MacDonald’s fine guitar lead. Lanny Morgan takes the solo on his alto sax as Williams and McCurdy rumble and roll below. Les Benedict enters on trombone and works that sweet tone as it becomes clear that all God’s children are going to solo on this track. Sure enough, Llew Matthews takes over on piano and then Williams’s bass to McCurdy’s drums.
In one song, we are treated to the proof that all of these artists and this particular composer/arranger belong here and they are truly doing it “Just for Fun.” I don’t know who exactly is “Unimpressed,” but it’s not me. I’m impressed as hell.
“G Jazz Blues” is also a MacDonald original with the very same line-up as the first track. In a piece full of stand-outs, Les Benedict’s trombone deserves special attention. The tonality, the delivery of the guy is as flavorful as my grandmother’s pecan pie. And that’s the best I can say of anything.
The tenor and alto saxes are gorgeous, as well. The trumpet is so fine and MacDonald’s guitar is splendid. Matthews’ piano solo is a thing of beauty and the bass and drums add such depth. The word marathon takes on another aspect as the pieces themselves turn into extended opportunities for all of the artists to work solo as well as riot together.
Strodahl and Weston’s “Day by Day” is a sweet arrangement. Rickey Woodard and John B. Williams bounce off each other beautifully. MacDonald pops in with the guitar and makes the appearance count. I love this guy’s approach and response. The same can be said of Matthews on piano, especially when you hear him drop in a nod and a wink to the theme from “Bewitched.” Once again, “Just for Fun” is a great title.
“Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” is the Romberg and Hammerstein classic. MacDonald starts off the piece on guitar and is soon joined by Summers and Woodard on trumpet and tenor sax. The second rhythm section of Langham, Hughes and Kreibich make their first appearance here. Summers and Woodard get some cool leads and Langham lays down beautiful piano work while Hughes and Kreibich anchor the rhythm section.
This is an extraordinary arrangement. As I was listening to this all I could do was look again at the track listing and gleefully anticipate what was to come.
Doug MacDonald worked the guitar over with straightforward refinement. Summers and Woodard and MacDonald and Langham trade between themselves as they break up the righteous drums of Kreibich. Fantastic.
Cole Porter’s “I Love You” stays with the same line-up as in the previous track. Les Benedict’s trombone takes on a vocal quality that is rich and swinging. Hughes and Kreibich carry a great groove through the piece. Summers’ trumpet is top flight. And you just have to dig that MacDonald guitar.
This is another one of those fine arrangements that works well for everyone concerned.
“Samba de Orfeu” by the great Luiz Banfa is one of my favorite pieces ever. Again, MacDonald’s arrangement is a thing to be admired and certainly enjoyed.
The piece is carried by the rhythm section of Langham, Hughes and Kreibich and MacDonald in a brilliant quartet setting. The samba is a wonderful form and these guys make it cook. Hughes and Kreibich just own this piece. I mean, they own it.
MacDonald’s different phrasing is fun and delightful. Langham turns in a splendid piano lead. This just might be my favorite piece on the album. The swing is hard and pulsating and the leads of MacDonald and Langham are electrifying. The crowd responded very enthusiastically.
The second disc opens with Joseph Kosma’s “Autumn Leaves.” Lanny Morgan’s alto sax opens the piece and the Benedict trombone picks up the melodic line for a moment before swinging it back to Morgan. Benedict and Hughes work it beautifully in duet as they take over from Morgan, again. Kreibich and Langham play it understated beneath and are magnificent in the doing until Langham joins Hughes in duet.
Langham has the ability to play with force and percussiveness as well as anyone. Sometimes he sounds likes the saloon piano player accompanying the shooting of a Doc Holliday victim and, in the next moment, he turns in something like a 1930s ragtime guy and then into the most straightforward Jazz. He is impressive.
Then comes the smooth, often subtle-always impressive, Luther Hughes on bass who can make the thing walk, stride, run, crawl within the framework of so many different stylings. He and Paul Kreibich on drums are formidable together. And “Autumn Leaves” is solid proof for all of them.
Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” is taken up beautifully by Lanny Morgan’s alto sax. Morgan is himself a gifted artist and his tone and attack are extraordinary. It’s easy to focus in on his playing. John B. Williams and Roy McCurdy are back with Lew Matthews in the rhythm section and they nail the rhythms. Matthews plays with more delicacy and touch (no insult to Langham) and together that rhythm section creates a propulsion that is so fine. This was hot stuff.
Doug MacDonald’s guitar is heard first in the start of Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird Suite.” Bob Summers on trumpet and alto saxman Lanny Morgan are in it together, smoking the trades. MacDonald gets great lead time and he turns in some gorgeous guitar work as Williams and McCurdy groove below. This is one of MacDonald’s finest moments—and the audience whooped their approval. Matthews and Williams get fun solos, lighter touches and soft stops making the tempo break. McCurdy then gets to trade with everybody in succession before the shout chorus at the conclusion. After the stop, you hear someone exclaim, “Oh, man. What fun!”
The Van Heusen/Mercer classic “I Thought about You” follows after with Les Benedict taking the start on trombone with another fine arrangement, as Summers represents the horns alone. It is the final track with the Matthews-Williams-McCurdy rhythm section. MacDonald and Matthews mirror and echo in cool fashion. The tenor sax of Woodard is warm but lively and full of emotion. Matthews takes the solo from Woodard while Williams and McCurdy work a slow swing. Williams’s own solo carries its own warm thoughts and passes them along to the listeners. Benedict comes back around for the final pass on trombone and is joined by MacDonald and Woodard to close it all out. Wow.
Kaper and Washington’s “Green Dolphin Street”—one of everyone’s favorites—is initiated with Lanny Morgan on alto sax. The bop piece is beautifully carried off with the alto and tenor saxes and the return of the Langham-Hughes-Kreibich rhythm section. The hard swing is wonderful and the trades between Morgan and Woodard are splendid. You just can’t get enough of this stuff. Again, MacDonald works the solo melody like a hypnotist and you find yourself mesmerized. Langham and Hughes duet with the melody to tasty results. So help me, Andy Langham is absolutely fascinating. The saxophones duet to the end.
The marathon and the album concludes with MacDonald’s original piece, “Magic Lamp.” All the artists return with the Langham-Hughes-Kreibich rhythm section to end the night. MacDonald, rightfully, gets the first voice in the piece before handing off to Bob Summers’ trumpet. It’s easy to anticipate an “everybody rides” participation in the solos and that is what you get and you’re glad for it. The improvisations are brilliant and the rhythm section is exemplary. Morgan and Woodard get their licks in as they trade fiercely. Benedict’s trombone commands attention and is worth the hearing in every way. Langham brings that unique sound back to the forefront and hands off quickly to Hughes’ great bass work. The album concludes before the crowd responds. Just as well because I was shouting and applauding on my own.
Doug MacDonald titles the album appropriately. “Just for Fun” is exactly what the listener gets to feel. In a marathon Jazz session with two rhythm sections and more horn parts than Gabriel’s heavenly host, it is a delightful excursion into the fun that Jazz can be. The smile has not left my face.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl