Wednesday, March 13, 2013

I Got Them Old Retro Jazz Blues Again Mama

Doug MacDonald, ReORGANized Quartet

The 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 tent.

A 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.

This 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 connections.

MacDonald’s “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.

Importantly, 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.

Though 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.”

Jazz 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.

This 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.

The 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.

By 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.

Doug 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.

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