Lou Donaldson Organ Quartet

At Birdland on Friday, February 26.

Of all musical genres, jazz is perhaps the farthest out of my comfort zone, the one that leaves me feeling most adrift—which is why it’s great that Sean and I have friends who expand my horizons, getting me to attend concerts I wouldn’t otherwise. Friday night’s performance at Birdland was particularly good for me because it motivated me to drag my winter-weary butt out of the apartment this past weekend, something that otherwise might not have happened. (Please, o weather gods, enough with the goddamn snow! The novelty has worn off. I am done.)

Anyway, now I’m stuck writing about jazz—always a daunting challenge. The problem, I think, is that jazz is near enough to musical styles that I do know well to make it easy for me to listen to it and understand it through that prism, yet far enough away to make that prism a problematic one. I definitely have my opinion, but I’m uncharacteristically insecure about it, which is a lousy position to write from. But this is my blog, and no one cares, so enough hedging: I didn’t like the use of the organ in Lou Donaldson’s Organ Quartet. So there.

But let me interrupt myself. (I totally lied about “enough hedging.”) I should probably acknowledge that Mr. Donaldson’s banter really rubbed me the wrong way from the outset. He cheerfully announced that he would be performing old-school jazz in the style of Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, which is fine, but he did so by basically insulting and dismissing everyone who came along after Charlie Parker, which pissed me off. I mean, I read: I know that jazz traditionalism, notably pushed by Wynton Marsalis, is controversial, and though I certainly don’t know enough about jazz to stake out a musically informed position of my own, from a purely philosophical perspective, I think the idea that art is best celebrated preserved in amber is a sad one. Plus, Donaldson’s chirpy little monologue, assuring the audience that jazz we might find challenging or avant-garde is basically worthless anyway, struck me as pandering of the worst kind, and I hate feeling like I’m being pandered to. Maybe that’s unfair. Donaldson is in his eighties, so it’s not as though he’s putting on an affinity for forties-era jazz, but still.

So I was feeling peevish when the quartet actually started playing, which is unfortunate because Donaldson, in particular, is a wonderful saxophonist, with breezy phrasing and a soulful tone. His improvisatory solos were playful and often eclectic (though, seriously: “Flight of the Bumblebee” is played out—ugh), and he was generous in allowing the other band members their moments to shine. I enjoyed the fine musicianship of Donaldson’s guitarist, and Rock Band, of all things, has made me much more appreciative of drummers. (Plus, this one was hot. Yay for hot drummers!)

But the organist—eh. When the quartet’s organist was in the background, he stuck to basic chordal stuff, almost like basso continuo, which made sense to me, but I wanted his solos to have more complexity, really show how textured the instrument can be, and instead the organist stuck almost exclusively to monophony, playing a single-voiced, fingery melody that could just have easily been played on the sax. So what’s the point? I know, I know: My understanding and love of the organ comes from Bach and Franck and Messiaen, so my expectations are no doubt skewed. Fine. But jazz piano can be richly pianistic, so why can’t the jazz organist indulge in some polyphony, at least play a couple voices off each other rather than sticking to a simple, albeit showy, melody? (And with his right hand, no less. If you want to show off at the organ, you should play that melody with your feet!)

And on that curmudgeonly note, I sign off with the promise that next time I listen to jazz, I will endeavor to be less grouchy. The end.