By Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune critic
August 9, 2008
In an earlier era, jazz musicians didn’t play just their instruments—they played the audience.
Reaching out to listeners with casual repartee, they took pains to make a sometimes elusive music that much more accessible.
Perhaps no veteran jazz artist working today epitomizes this tradition more charmingly than alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson, who drew smiles for his stage banter and ovations for his instrumental prowess Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
“This is not for fusion artists; this is not for confusion artists,” Donaldson quipped before launching into a characteristically complex number.
“You have to practice to play this kind of music.”
Indeed you do—not that practice alone will vault many altoists into Donaldson’s league. A bebop veteran whose gleaming tone and bluesy sensibility always distinguished him from peers, the octogenarian virtuoso has lost little to the passing decades.
He proved as much with his opening number, “Blues Walk,” a cocky, strutting tune that has served as an anthem for him for roughly half a century. To this day, though, Donaldson infuses it with the slightly overripe timbre and plaintively sighing phrases that are his musical signatures. With an organ swelling behind him, Donaldson played as if the late ’50s and early ’60s—his heyday—never went away.
If Donaldson’s band didn’t match his level of intensity or technical mastery, at least organist Akiko Tsuruga, drummer Fukushi Tainaka and guitarist Eric Johnson didn’t get in the way.
The Lou Donaldson Quartet plays at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Saturday; 4 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. Sunday at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.,; $20; 312-360-0234.
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