Mike LeDonne Quartet updates classics

The Mike LeDonne Quartet, a jazz group from New York City, performed in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall last Thursday. The band’s namesake formed the rhythm section with his Hammond B3 organ, along with percussionist Joe Farnsworth. They were accompanied by Peter Bernstein playing guitar and tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander. The quartet has played together for several years and has a regular gig at Smoke, a club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The performance is the first in a series of upcoming jazz events at that will culminate with the Williamstown Jazz Festival in April.

LeDonne began performing in his teens and soon became an established and respected pianist. He has performed with the Benny Goodman Sextet and the Milt Jackson Quartet, as well as many other jazz greats. He is currently the director of the jazz program at the famous Juilliard School in New York City.

Since bursting onto the scene in 1991 at the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition, Alexander has swiftly become one of the best young tenor saxophonists in the business. He has recorded several albums as a front man with a multitude of other artists. Bernstein has been a leading jazz guitarist in New York since 1988. Influenced by rock and blues as a young man, he eventually decided to focus on jazz and has since become a respected performer. Farnsworth, a local product from South Hadley, is one of the most in-demand session drummers in New York.

The evening began when Farnsworth entertained the audience with a joke too inappropriate to be printed in this forum (it involved parrots and fire), while some technical problems were being resolved. As the group swung into action, the musicians were arranged in a typical configuration for an organ quartet; with no bass player, Ledonne’s organ was compelled to provide bass and form the rhythm with the drums. In an energetic and fast-paced first number, it became evident that the musicians are quite successful in this format. The Quartet plays joyously, but with an intense focus as each member elicited spiraling and unraveling melodies that are vibrant with improvisation.

After opening with such a promising first song, the group proceeded to display a rich mix of different tunes over the next hour and a half. “Silverdust,” a tribute written by LeDonne for famous pianist Horace Silver, was underlined by a celebratory and bright groove over which each artist improvised.

In “One for Don,” also composed by LeDonne, Alexander spat out inverted melodies while the other three unleashed a barely constrained wild base harmony with the improvisations peaking, dipping and melding into moments of sheer ecstasy. Bernstein’s guitar was somewhat awkward and jarred against the organ, but had sublime moments.

LeDonne, a monument to improvisational control, brushed against abstraction while plunging in and out of innocuous melodies before spiraling kinetically upward again. Farnsworth finished the tune with a calm solo that exploded into a crescendo and died only to be resurrected.

“Pain,” originally written by John Coltrane, was a quieter and more relaxed number. Bernstein’s guitar was much more effective working with LeDonne’s organ as Farnsworth provided a counter texture with a lively rhythm, occasionally rapping against the sides and rims of his drums in staccato bursts. The tune floated contemplatively from solo to solo in an airy manner. The song eventually slowed and subtly, sleepily drifted.

“Delilah” was also a relaxed tune which gradually intensified as Farnsworth narrated with a clipped and efficient pace. Alexander and LeDonne initially pursued a series of bop melodies as Bernstein wandered in and out of a brassy vibe marked with moments of muscular harmony. LeDonne, suddenly playing with focused ferocity, laid down an intense riff over an exultant base harmony. The other three, picking up on the sudden pulse, joined in and all were soon clearly enjoying themselves, immersed in every spontaneous moment.

The Quartet then swung into an enthusiastic rendition of Al Green’s classic “Let’s Stay Together” that was flecked with elements of swing and bop. Each artist illustrated moods with extended glowing riffs which created a rich, vibrant atmosphere.

The finishing number, “Ready and Able” by Jack McDuff, had an incredibly high tempo marked by endless sonic blips that blended into one intense harmonic stream. Alexander had a great solo with a slow steady groove before all four erupted again with kinetic joy. Farnsworth finished with a great experimental solo that switched rhythmic intensity with vigor.

Alexander displayed his skill and range throughout the evening. His improvisation had a tendency to seem repetitive, but as he explored the melodic boundaries of each tune, he continually found interludes and flowing moments of harmonic unity and expression.

Bernstein’s performance was similarly impressive. As the evening wore on, his solos markedly improved until he was achieving great musical success. Farnsworth, performing behind such headliners as LeDonne and Alexander, is the hidden gem of this group. He played with an air of assured bravura that covered an intense concentration that resulted in exceptionally tight form. He displayed a sly grin while masterminding the rhythm and his drums were the constant foundation for all the other artists throughout the performance.

LeDonne displayed incredible range and ability. He maintained rhythm with a subtle effort and provided supporting melodies for other instruments. When his organ was featured, he would erupt with staccato moments of harmony, over-blowing the other artists with his superabundant energy before producing a crescendo of frenetic chords that twisted the tune into a whirl of melodic serendipity.

The performance had few faults aside from an adherence to a too rigid and repetitive structure of individual solos. The artists produced a memorable evening of musical delight that was thoroughly enjoyed by the entire audience. The Mike LeDonne Quartet is an immensely talented group with rare cohesion and a wide range of emotionally and harmonically expressive abilities. It richly deserves future attention in the modern jazz scene. See williamstownjazz.com for more details.