Live Stream Review
MIKE LEDONNE TRIO
Live at Mezzrow (2023)
Mike LeDonne, piano
John Webber, bass
Willie Jones III, drums
Friday and Saturday, July 7 - 8, 2023
Mezzrow Jazz Club
163 W. 10th Street, New York City
By Dave Lisik | Published July 2023
On Friday and Saturday, July 7 - 8, 2023, pianist (and often organist), Mike LeDonne, with his trio of bassist, John Webber and drummer, Willie Jones III, played four impressive evening sets at Mezzrow Jazz Club in New York City.
“Please keep conversation to a minimum.”
From the moment LeDonne kicks off the short solo piano intro for the Friday, first set opener, “Let It Go,” by saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, the beauty of the jazz piano trio format, especially in an intimate setting, is apparent. The enticement lasts for the duration of the four hours, even when an errant phone ringing threatens a particularly delicate musical moment. Part of the captivation of the jazz trio is in the limited instrumental parameters. These three instruments have such contrasting and complimentary timbres and musical roles within the context of the trio. It’s a perfect vehicle. Even after countless hours spent playing with and listening to similar live groups and recordings, it’s so easy to be in the moment with this band, as though for the first time. The most significant additional appeal, in this case, is the level on which these men operate.
LeDonne has a network of great musicians with whom he performs frequently. Early in the first set, in reference to Webber and Jones, he says, “We’ve been playing together for a lot of years and been through a lot together. So it’s time to just relax and have some fun at this point.” LeDonne’s brief introductions and comments between a good number of the tunes are low key and helpful in welcoming the audience into the conversations happening on stage. His comments and voice seem to match the conscious intention of his band’s overall performances: to communicate something that clearly matters to them.
Anyone who follows LeDonne on social media understands his firm commitment to respecting the tradition of the world’s greatest jazz musicians, many of whom, from a certain time period, served as models, elder statesmen, and mentors for LeDonne and his contemporaries. The opener for the Saturday second set, is a tune by Ray Brown for vibraphonist Milt Jackson, “Used To Be Jackson.” LeDonne spent eleven years playing with Jackson and calls the experience “one of the biggest blessings of my entire life.” When announcing Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” arranged by Harold Mabern, LeDonne adds, “I like to keep these gentlemen alive because they are alive in me.” LeDonne is also publicly vocal about the affection he has for his immediate family and I suspect that when he programs his own tune, “You’ll Never Know What You Mean to Me,” (recorded by George Coleman on A Master Speaks), the title is more sentimental than accurate. The sets consist of other high integrity standards and Jazz tunes by Cedar Walton (“Holy Land”), Kurt Weill (“Lover Man”), Willard Robinson (“Old Folks”), Duke Ellington (“Satin Doll”), and a couple of burning, well-over 300 beats per minute versions of standard tunes, including Dizzy Gillespie’s “Shaw 'Nuff.”
“That is some New York City, Saturday night music.”
LeDonne’s piano playing is a constant display of his understanding of musical balance. It’s a satisfying blend of traditional vocabulary and piano-specific acrobatics, blues-infused language, lush ballad playing, dedicated motivic and rhythmic development, and tasteful harmonic superimposition. He’s patient and content to stick with a simple motive long enough to see it through to a logical conclusion, which sometimes results in building the idea into something rhythmically complicated. But not always. At the right time, he’s capable of releasing any built-up tension with a jaw-dropping technical passage. But other than the virtuosity required to play with a consistently high level of time, feel, and swing, he’s not constantly reminding everyone of his technical prowess just for the sake of it.
About two thirds of the way through the first set, LeDonne starts a long solo piano introduction to “My One And Only Love,” with a sensitivity worthy of the beautiful tune. Ack! And then someone’s phone starts ringing. But it’s LeDonne’s phone! After a brief chuckle from the audience (many of whom, I’m sure, were excessively relieved when it wasn’t their phone), he’s back into the tune and ushering Webber and Jones into the performance.
LeDonne opens Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood” with a beautifully hypnotic chime-like motive and gradually intensifies to the downbeat at the top of the tune where Webber and Jones enter at ballad tempo. Again, there’s a lot of patience. With players on this level, there’s a real satisfaction in waiting for the eventual payoff. You’re both confident that it’s coming and happy to be in the moment until it does because what’s happening in the meantime, sounds and feels great. LeDonne ends the tune with another solo piano section, still making clear reference to the tune. For a minute, it seems like he might be about to segue into another tune, but the band brings the tune to a quick close with a flourish. The break between tunes is only a few seconds, just enough to give a verbal nod and credit to Ellington, before more sensitive solo piano playing leads into another breakneck tempo.
In addition to being a brilliant soloist, drummer Jones is an ideal collaborator throughout the tune melodies and LeDonne’s solos, rising and falling with each section and chorus as the nature of the solo material changes. The Mezzrow recording equipment does a decent job of capturing the subtleties in Jones’ lovely brushwork.
Webber plays beautiful bass solos but if there’s a drawback to the streaming format at Mezzrow, it’s in the clarity of the bass when the whole group is playing, especially at louder dynamics. It’s present, but not as obvious as it would likely be for the audience in the room. There’s no suggested or warranted criticism of Webber as a bassist here. He's brilliant as soloist and ideal musical partner to Jones. Fortunately, in this format and with the musicality of these players, especially on ballads it’s less of an issue. Webber’s improvised solos are clearly audible due to the dynamic awareness of LeDonne and Jones with LeDonne always taking a supportive and sensitive comping role, injecting energy at the right times and allowing Webber ample space to be heard. I know from personal experience in Mezzrow, Smalls, and other similar venues, that the balance between the players is close to ideal, especially near the stage.
There’s no substitute for experiencing New York City jazz in a truly live context. But for those of us living elsewhere, the internet is a wonderful invention. Mezzrow and its sister club, Smalls, a literal stone’s throw from each other (both on W. 10th Street in Greenwich Village), have a remarkable tradition, which long predates the pandemic, of live streaming their shows and then featuring them in an online archive. The live streams are free for anyone and the entire archive is easily accessible through a minimum donation. The Smalls website says the archive is larger than 17,000 performance videos, but that count was from around 2019.
Not too long ago, it would have been hard to imagine having the ability to tune into these venues, halfway around the world, showcasing many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians. The two fixed cameras that alternate between views of the stage every fifteen seconds are about as minimal an approach to video production values as you can manage. But this setup seems ideal for this venue and these players. The emphasis is on the purity of the music. These two vantage points give us plenty of unobstructed views of all three players’ hands (at least half of the time for the piano).
These instruments have such a physical component and the visual element is invaluable to understanding them. I can imagine the value, and humbling nature of these streams for jazz students (especially anyone working on drumset technique) to tune in for a few minutes and know that all this is happening live.
More information: mikeledonne.org
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