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Four Classic Albums





Blues Walk: 1-6
1. Blues Walk
2. Move
3. The Masquerade Is Over
4. Play Ray
5. Autumn Nocturne
6. Callin’ All Cats
Gravy Train : 7-13
7. Gravy Train
8. South of the Border
9. Polka Dots and Moonbeams
10. Avalon
11. Candy
12. Twist Time
13. Glory of Love

Lou Takes Off : 1-4
1. Sputnik
2. Dewey Square
3. Strollin’ in
4. Groovin’ High
Here ’Tis: 5-9
5. A Foggy Day

6. Here ’Tis

7. Cool Blues
8. Watusi Jump
9. Walk Wid Me

Blues Walk : Lou Donaldson (alto sax),

Herman Foster (piano), ‘Peck’ Morrison (bass),

Ray Barretto (congas), Dave Bailey (drums).

Rec Van Gelder Studios, July 28 1958

Gravy Train : Donaldson (alto sax),

Foster (piano), Ben Tucker (bass)

Alec Dorsey (congas), Bailey (drums)

Rec Van Gelder Studios, April 27 1961

Lou Takes Off :

Donald Byrd (trumpet), Curtis Fuller (trombone),

Donaldson (alto sax), Sonny Clark (piano),

George Joyner (bass) Art Taylor (drums)

Rec Englewood Cliffs, December 15 1957

Here ’Tis :

Donaldson (alto sax) ‘Baby Face’ Willette (organ),

Grant Green (guitar), Dave Bailey (drums)

Rec. Englewood Cliffs, January 23 1961

It is trait common to many minor artists in any medium that they can reproduce with a fair degree of fidelity (even if more in manner than substance) one aspect, one dimension, of the work of a much greater figure. This is true, for example, of the hundreds of painters right across mainland Europe in the Seventeenth Century (the so-called ‘Caravaggisti’) who imitated (at a lower wattage, as it were) the work of Caravaggio. The same pattern holds for jazz too. Lou Donaldson is well described (by Richard Cook / Brian Morton, in The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Fifth edition, 2000) as “among the most diligent of Charlie Parker’s disciples”. It is also characteristic of such minor artists that they are never seriously innovative.

Some, such as Robert Levin in the original sleeve notes to two of these reissued albums, have argued that Donaldson had “assimilated varying methods and approaches that antedate Parker’s innovations, and this has resulted in a foundation that gives a larger validity to the inspiration he found in Parker’s work and what he has done with it”. There is some special pleading here, which is not entirely convincing. To my ears, and I suspect to most who listen to Donaldson, what is to be heard in Donaldson’s playing is a simplification of Parker, a narrowing of the greater artist’s range, complexity and daring into a form more readily accessible, even, one might say, more comfortable and less challenging. Like the archetypal minor artist, Donaldson’s range, imaginatively, emotionally and intellectually, is narrow. After listening, with some modest pleasure, but not, perhaps, much excitement, to these four representative albums (all originally issued on Blue Note), it is hard to imagine that many will be rushing out (or these days going online) to order more of the altoist’s recordings. There isn’t enough of the “sound of surprise”. Listen with care to any two of these albums and you can anticipate pretty well everything that Donaldson plays on the others.

I mean no insult to Donaldson (for all his limitation of range, I enjoy the directness and passion of his best work) if I suggest that the most rewarding of these albums is Lou Takes Off, by virtue of the facts that Donaldson is not the only horn to be heard here (with the addition of Donald Byrd and Curtis Fuller to the front line) and that Sonny Clark is a much better soloist than either Herman Foster or ‘Baby Face’ Willette. Elsewhere there are good individual tracks on each album, such as ‘Blues Walk’ (on the album of the same name), where the contributions made by Ray Barretto’s congas and Dave Bailey’s drums lift things out of the ordinary. ‘Move’ on the same album, finds Donaldson playing (pretty well) pure bop. On Gravy Train, ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams’ is one of Donaldson’s best ballad performances. ‘Watusi Jump’ on Here ’Tis doesn’t have much about it (beyond its title) that is African, but it has an engaging vivacity (Grant Green rather upstages the leader here). ‘Cool Blues’ on this last album gives us Donaldson paying more or less explicit homage to Parker.

No one has ever claimed Donaldson as a major figure in modern jazz, and I suspect that no one ever will. He is a thoroughly competent epigone of a greater musician, who plays accessible, emotional music. I suspect that hearing him live in a club must have made for an enjoyable evening, but even at something like his best – as on these four albums – in recorded form his work begins to wear thin after a few hearings.

Glyn Pursglove



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