Doug MacDonald, ReORGANized Quartet
first track on Doug MacDonald’s latest album, “G Jazz Blues,” kicks off
with a four-instrument flourish that signals clearly what you can
expect from the entire album. This mix of original instrumentals and
well-traveled classics, anchored on the tension between MacDonald’s
George Benson-ish guitar and Bobby Pierce’s organ, channels the best of
mid-20th Century lounge blues not much heard since Roy Milton folded his
longtime Los Angeles live music mainstay, MacDonald has perfected a
warm, understated playing technique that utilizes the best of electric
small-band swing without sounding too derivative. Jazz journalist Bill
Milkowski’s liner notes name-check influences like John Coltrane and
Grant Green, but that seems facile. Though MacDonald’s influences remain
close to the surface, he isn’t derivative; he’s the best Doug MacDonald
he could ever be.
mostly instrumental outing allows the play between tight composition
and playful improv that drives the best jazz. MacDonald’s fondness for
breezy chord changes and eccentric, syncopated rhythms makes this album
feel at once comfortingly familiar, like some favorite sweater, and
somehow new. Easy listening this ain’t, but MacDonald sure makes for
some pleasant music for close times, deep thoughts, and romantic
“Man Outside His Time” instrumentation shows influence not only from
mid-century swing, but also flashes of his Hawaiian youth and, if I’m
not mistaken, moments of rockabilly. The twilight turns on “Bat Into
Hell” or “I’ve Got the Minor Blues” showcase a nostalgia which underpins
his entire sound. Such retro grooves don’t call attention to themselves
on more upbeat numbers like “Indecisive” or “The Night Has a Thousand
Eyes,” but they’re always there.
this nostalgia influences both MacDonald’s cover versions, which
comprise about half the album, and his new compositions. “Bandera,” a
MacDonald original, has a ‘50s Brazilian vibe, rich with complex
harmonies that may shift suddenly, though constantly held together by
soft, hip-shaking percussion. Play it beside his take on the Gershwin
standard “Isn’t It a Pity,” and you couldn’t tell which was original,
which the classic.
this is a quartet album, the most insightful track must surely be
Macdonald’s solo turn on “Moon River/Moonlight In Vermont.” This medley
of standards gives MacDonald the opportunity to flex his chops—an
expression that takes on new meaning when his percussive chords hit like
a backwoodsman splitting cordwood. This subdued solo extravaganza
highlights what Joel Mabus, himself no stranger to improvisational
fever, meant when he called the guitar “a band in a box.”
aficionados like to say that the real magic happens between the notes.
By this, they mean that where other genres showcase virtuoso playing,
jazz lives and dies by the tension between the instruments. Listen
flippantly, and it may sound like the sax and organ are playing in
different time signatures, or like MacDonald’s guitar is half a measure
behind. But this album rewards active listening, to note just how
perfectly integrated the full quartet really is.
back-and-forth gives MacDonald’s small ensemble an orchestral feel.
Though this album has an intimate vibe, it feels close without ever
feeling small, because the tension across instruments makes the sound
swell beyond its seemingly close parameters. MacDonald’s arrangements
give each instrument sufficient play to create a Miles Davis midnight
jam session vibe even though it only ever includes four instruments.
two songs with vocals are probably this album’s weakest tracks. “I’d
Rather Drink Muddy Water,” made famous by Lou Rawls and BB King, and
Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You,” feel like perfunctory nods to audience
expectations. Organist Pierce and drummer Harold Acey have pleasant but
ordinary voices, overshadowed by the more adventurous instrumentation.
We keep waiting for a bridge so the music can resume center stage.
contrast, several of the best tracks feature tenor sax in the usual
vocal role. The liner cites two saxophonists, Clarence Webb and Roger
Neumann, but they clearly trade off. And both are so well integrated
into the sound that we never think “there’s Clarence. And there’s
Roger!” Instead, both make their instruments sing, Billie Holiday-style,
in a manner familiar to jazz fans and accessible to newcomers.
MacDonald is no showboater. He carefully vanishes into his quartet,
creating a sound so integrated that even on his solo turn, you have to
listen twice to notice he doesn’t have the band behind him. This
modesty, coupled with his bold arrangements and affable playing style,
give his quartet a muscular but sound that will attract veteran jazz
listeners and keep new audiences coming back for more.