One Track Mind: Mike LeDonne – "Rock With You" (2010)

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photo: Dan Codazzi
by Pico

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured the Rod Temperton tune made into a 1979 hit by Michael Jackson. But it bears another look, as interpreted by a completely different artist.

Pianist and organist Mike LeDonne, a long established fixture in New York’s jazz arena, worked for Roy Eldridge, Milt Jackson and Benny Golson. He even became Jackson’s musical director and was strong enough as a composer to contribute many songs to the vibe legend’s repertoire during Jackson’s late period. As much as an in-demand figure LeDonne has become on piano, he long kept his love for the Hammond B3 under wraps. That is, until his switched over to the HighTones-affiliated Savant label after his 2001 tribute to his old boss Jackson. Since then, most of his records have been of the greasy hard-groovin’ variety, featuring Joe Farnsworth on drums, Peter Bernstein of guitar and fellow HighNote artist Eric Alexander on tenor sax.

LeDonne’s organ style bears more than a passing resemblance to the late B3 titan, Charles Earland. Like Earland, LeDonne plays with as much with rhythm in mind as he does melody. And he swings mightily. With Alexander, Berstein and Farnsworth, he couldn’t have picked a better match alive today for this most righteous style of soul-jazz. Alexander played in Earland’s band early in his own career and ever since then has retained a healthy measure of soul in his tenor that few of his generation can approach. Bernstein is the first guitarist someone like Dr. Lonnie Smith thinks of when putting together an organ jazz combo because his unfussy, warm manner is a perfect fit for the style. Farnsworth has a unfailingly swing in his drumming approach that’s made him a longtime favorite of Alexander, and has also recorded for Golson and Cedar Walton.

LeDonne’s latest record chronicling his Hammond B3 awakening came out earlier this week. It’s titled, quite accurately, The Groover, and once again Alexander, Berstein and Farnsworth all called upon to reconvene this killer group for yet another sizzling sampling of stick-to-your-ribs zesty soul-jazz. It’s a smart mixture of LeDonne originals and other folks’ songs, including the recording debut of a tune composed by the great Golson (“Little Mary,” written for LeDonne’s daughter). But we’re here to talk about the album’s first seleciton, “Rock With You.”

Neil Tesser’s otherwise superb line notes for The Groover makes only short mention of this track, not even mentioning it by name, but I think there’s a good story behind it. You see, Earland loved to draw from contemporary pop music for his source of material and make it sound often more inspirational than the original. I think that this selection of fresh, familiar melodies and morphing them into unabashed burners is part of what made Earland so well-loved among jazz fans of both the discerning and casual types.

It’s obvious that LeDonne understands that. Recorded just little more than three months after Jackson’s death, he chose a song that was sure to remind his audience of the King Of Pop, but one that has a tempo that makes the transition over to organ/guitar/sax/drums an easy transition. As Tesser does insightfully note, the rhythm is a conga that Earland favored and Farnsworth seems to have a great handle on. The songs begins right at the transition to the chorus, which gives the song a attention-getting entrance where you know almost from the first note which song this is. Alexander follows the lead vocal line in the refrain, while LeDonne and him take turns assuming that role during the verses. LeDonne plays it straight, then makes way for Alexander to blow with the soul of Hank Mobley and the grace of Ike Quebec. Bernstein squeezes pure cane juice from each sweet note. LaDonne then returns to turn up the passion. But as it is everywhere else, the heat burns with a steady, controlled flame. These guys are not young hotshots, they are wise vets.

The best musical tributes, in my view, are done with both a high dose of artistry as well as sentiment, and this rendition passes both tests with flying colors. Michael Jackson long ago left us with a masterful, hip swaying version of Temperton’s mid-tempo groover. Today, Mike LeDonne gives us a marvelous finger-snapping version of the same song.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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