Monday, March 19, 2012

The Mike LeDonne Interview Part 1

Mike LeDonne
I have a lot of respect for Mike LeDonne. I've been aware of  LeDonne for years; I used to see him at Augie's back in the 90's. I heard him with Benny Golson and some other various groups around New York City. He's worked with many of the legends, including Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, and Sonny Rollins. LeDonne is a perfect example of someone who plays both piano and organ exceptionally well. He's a man with serious artistic convictions, as you will see in this interview. I'm posting this in two part because it's pretty long. We talked a lot of shop, but a lot about the past, present, and future of jazz. Please enjoy Part 1.....

GC: When I saw your performance at Smoke, I was impressed with the sound of the band, the presentation and your technique as an organist. How long have you had this residency at Smoke, and how has it contributed to your musical development?
ML: Well, let’s see, I think it started in 2000, so I guess about 11 years. It’s really been an incredible boost to my organ playing. It’s amazing what a gig every week does for your playing. I wouldn’t even have thought about it before I got that gig. Plus, I play other places, obviously, and do other things besides organ. But it’s that solid, that consistent thing that not only boosted my whole understanding and hearing of the sounds of the organ, but also the writing for the organ and how to write for a group like that. We never get to rehearse, because it’s just a once a week steady gig, and I want to bring in new stuff all the time, so it can never be too… tricky. It’s sort of, got to play itself down, because you just got to bring it right in and play, it’s got to be one of those and that’s challenging, to try and come up with those kind of arrangements that still sound arranged but don’t need rehearsal.
Smoke Jazz Club
And that’s been a good discipline for me, to sort of simplify some things and how to make judgment calls on parts when you’re composing. So many ideas pop into your head; you can go in so many directions, and so this thing really helps focus me on just really editing out all the little things that could screw up and really get to the meat of the matter quicker. So in that way it’s been great. Also, I have to say, I think my left hand has improved tremendously just from pumping bass like that all the time.
GC: It sounded great to me. That was one of the things that really struck me was the left hand. I mean, you guys played some serious up tempos, and it just seemed like your left hand never faltered. It was smooth, like a bass player.
ML: Well, thanks. That’s what I’m definitely trying to go for. It’s not only the organ playing - I’m talking about my piano playing.  Actually, my left hand has improved. On the piano, because of pumping like that, I mean you’re just….. for three hours, you’re just relentlessly pumping away at that left hand, like you said, with some fast tempos and whatever tempos. You’re just constantly playing down there in a way that you don’t ever do on piano.
So suddenly, doing double octave lines and things like that are actually coming out without me having to sit here and practice and practice it. It’s just more spontaneous because the hand is just working better.
So, I guess most people think that organ technique is easier than piano technique, and I kind of see what they mean as far as the muscle power. You don’t need the muscle control as much, but you certainly need muscle to get through. Especially at a gig like Smoke because it’s three hours. It’s not just a little one-set or two-set gig, it’s an old school three-set one-hour set thing. And that third set, you can go hard down up there if you don’t have the technical abilities to maintain your thrust to that third hour. I often look at that third set and think, how am I going to do this because, you know, playing organ - how much energy you put out.

GC: Well, that's another thing I wanted to ask you about, because I find that the way that piano sits in a jazz band is very different from the way organ sits in a jazz band. I think I mentioned, on the first piece I did about you, that the Hammond B3 in a band is like half the band or more. You know, there’s the bass, there’s the rhythm, there’s the chords, there’s the melody, that’s like the real heart of the matter. On piano I think you can kind of, and maybe you’re expected to float just a little bit more, and sort of just comment every now and then and not necessarily be so prevalent, I mean unless it’s a trio.
ML: Yeah, right, I know what you mean… you can stroll a lot on the piano and you never get to stroll on the organ.
GC: Exactly.
ML: It’s just constantly… it’s relentless, is the only word I can put to it, it never lets up. Sometimes I like to let my right hand stroll for the comping and just do the bass. That’s a nice textural change sometimes, under the guitar player or something, just to lighten it up a little bit. But basically, the difference is the left hand and the foot, and the volume thing because I never realized how hard that was going to get.
I don't know what you think, but one of the hardest things for me to pull together was the volume pedal, believe it or not… not physically but hearing it, just hearing the volume pedal. Because you get so overwhelmed with all the other things you’re doing that sometimes that foot on the volume pedal can just be pressing that thing to the metal. And before you know it, you're just overpowering and so loud people are holding their ears and wondering why the groove has gone away…. and then you realize, oh my god, the volume pedal! Then you back it down, and then the groove comes back, and you’re like, oh my god I have to keep that thing together! Or some people tend to pump it too much, because we tend to pump the volume pedal on all four beats sometimes, I don’t know why… sometimes it makes it sound nicer. I think sometimes it’s just an absentminded kind of a thing that's going on in our body that’s keeping time with our foot with that right foot. It’s pumping, and it can make the music sound really bad if it’s too much.
GC: Yeah, I’ve heard differing opinions about that. Some people dig it, some people don’t…
ML: I just know when I listen, when I hear guys sit in and suddenly you can hear the pulse coming through the volume pedal, and even when they’re playing their solo there’s this swell and decay of the volume all through the solo, it doesn’t sound right. I mean, I never heard an organ player that I liked play like that.
GC: I hear you.
ML: I usually base things on that kind of thinking… and it’s just that the playing just doesn’t sound that good to me. I really think it’s just not a thing they are doing on purpose. It’s sort of an autopilot for the foot there, they’re just not paying attention. Because I don't think anyone would want to hear a solo with every beat getting loud, soft, loud, soft, loud soft, you know.
GC: Exactly,I hear you. Let me ask you something just about the left hand. I mean, cause there’s difference, I find that the biggest difference between piano and organ is just the amount of weight that you have to use. I mean, to me organ is maybe more about the fingers, whereas piano is more like you actually put your arm weight into it. Do you find that you have a little bit more arm impulse, like if you’re trying to get a real clear bass? Do you have any thoughts on that?
ML: I do. I use my arm. I don't think many organ players do, and I’m just a self-taught organ player. I actually play the keys like they’re weighted on both hands. I mean, I like my touch to a degree, and I change my touch rhythmically because of the different sound of the organ. I tend to play straighter eighth notes in my right hand than I probably would on the piano, but other than that I put my arm into that sucker like the bass lines. Not much, just a little, but there’s a little arm in there, just to separate the notes, because the whole problem with the bass on the organ is that if you just play with fingers and connect the notes there’s no clarity to the feel at all, to the beat.
So you need to disconnect those notes a bit, and you also need to add the pedal as sort of a percussive tap… almost like a bass drum to separate the time too… and all of that together can create a really good feel from an organ bass. But I find that the guys who just play really light on the bass line - like just fingers - I don’t really feel that feel as good.
GC: Yeah.
ML: And the same with the right hand. Some of the classic organ sounds, you got to hit those notes! You don't just play with fingers… you got to put your arm into it. Like, you know the thing where you play a fourth and you tremolo the fourth?
GC: Sure.
Jimmy Smith
ML: The classic Jimmy Smith thing…. if you just play that it just sounds “ack” but if you hit it hard with your hand, it gets  a different bite. It gets a different sound altogether.
So there’s a real body-physicality to the organ, as far as I’m concerned. And not as much as the piano to me…. Actually, the thing that separates the piano from the organ is really the amount of muscle control you need with all the variety of sounds you can get out of the piano. You can’t get the variety, obviously, out of the organ, and the piano is just so unforgiving in that way. You have to have a touch and that touch has to have a sound, and with the organ you don’t really have to have the touch.
I mean, a baby could sit down and play the organ and it sounds just like Jimmy Smith because that sound’s just going to come out, so to me it’s more about the subtleties of the sounds more than the power. But on the piano, it's the whole gamut of dynamics with the arms and the fingers. But in answer  to your question, yes, I do use my arms on the organ as well, and I like that kind of thing.
I remember years ago talking to Joey DeFrancesco…. he’s somebody who really was an organist first.
GC: Oh yeah, he’s a natural born organ player. I think he’s a really good pianist too, but he doesn't do it a lot, and he was saying that he felt like his piano playing was suffering because he just didn’t do it enough. He just didn't have the time…
Charles Earland
ML That’s right, you cannot screw around with that piano… even though you can get away with more on the organ, I think. I mean, a guy who doesn't really learn to play… well, look at some of the great organ players. Charlie Earland was a saxophone player.
GC: Oh, I didn't know that.
ML: And then he sat down and he just had that thing with that bass line, and suddenly he was an organ player, but if he played on the piano, I don’t think he’d have survived a week. But on the organ, he was just killing with that bass line and… you got to practice. The piano is an instrument you’re on your knees to, whereas the organ just puts you on your knees because it’s a merciless beast. But the piano, that’s a subtle instrument. and you got to really practice the hell of out that thing to get it under control… and there’s so much to control… the organ is a lot, too… there’s switching between sounds, coming up with new sounds. and controlling all of your limbs – each has its own challenges.
GC: Yeah, of course, just the coordination…. and I mean, I find it fascinating, all the different parameters you can manipulate on the organ. I mean it’s obviously different from the piano in that way but …
ML: Right, it’s incredible the scope of the organ, although really I don't hear a whole lot of guys except for Lonnie, even Joey, I don't really hear him using like the big sounds that much, like the full draw bar sound, I mean everything out. I’m sure that Joey does it, I just haven’t heard it that much, but there’s not too many guys just going to rip with that big sound out because it is kind of a… you got to commit… once that thing’s out and you just go for it, you got to commit to it. If you back off it sounds ridiculous.
GC: I totally agree.
ML: And it’s hard to do.
GC: But that was what was very impressive about your set, and also listening to your record. Those kind of things, that attention to putting the right sounds in the right place.
ML: Yeah, well, that's the orchestrating that you do on there…. and to me that's the fun of the organ. You've got this whole huge orchestra that you deal with. It can be this little, nice, quiet thing or you can just blast on it. I know it's not considered to be cool to blast on it anymore I guess. If you look at the history, even Jimmy Smith stopped doing it by the time he was really recording a lot for Blue Note and Verve and everything… you don't hear him take too many big blast-off moments in his solos.
Larry Young
GC: Well, maybe somebody like Larry Young… he’s sort of changed the vibe a little bit.
ML: Larry really changed the vibe. He never would play that particular style; he played all kinds of other different sounds but … I always relate that sound, and I guess other people do too, to Wild Bill Davis, the original guys. Jimmy Smith was doing that thing when he first started, and I have some live records of him from the 60’s… and he’s doing incredible things with that and so does Lonnie. To me Lonnie and Don Patterson took what Jimmy Smith was doing and updated it with that big-sound thing, so there are ways to use it so it doesn't have to sound like just a big band arrangement, and I like all of it. I love Wild Bill Davis… have you ever heard the record he made with Ella Fitzgerald?
GC: No.
ML: Oh, man! That record is off the hook! His playing on there is so incredible! You know, he was a great accompanist for singers on the organ, and Ella hired him for a while… I’m trying to think of the name of the record, you just got to check it out, George, you will love it… it's called “These Are The Blues.” Check that shit out, it’s so swinging, and I don't think people would realize what a great blues singer Ella Fitzgerald is because she’s not known for that kind of thing.
GC: She’s not thought of that way.
ML: Right, but she sings her ass off on “These Are The Blues” and Wild Bill Davis is incredible on it. Back in the day when I was younger, I collected all these records, because I was into collecting records anyway, and I got a whole bunch of his stuff. He made a whole bunch of records with Johnny Hodges, and he even made a record with Louis Hayes and Sam Jones on it. He recorded with Duke, and there’s just a lot of great, really swinging stuff with Wild Bill Davis and a lot of stuff with upright bass with organ, like George Duvivier playing with Wild Bill Davis and Arthur Edgehill…. that's incredible stuff with Lockjaw Davis, Arnett Cobb. That's some rompin’ stuff in organ music; I guess it could be considered- old fashioned, but I just love it. It’s swingin’ as hell so you might want to check it out.
GC: Yeah, definitely.

ML: So that's the stuff you know… I think Jimmy Smith came out of that thing, but he took it in a whole-nother direction and to me, Lonnie is the great guy that's around now. He’s the great exponent of Jimmy Smith, or the next logical step after Jimmy Smith as far as keeping all the stuff that Jimmy Smith did and doing something completely of his own with it that's true to the organ. Its’ really about the organ, what Lonnie does. I think what I do is, I wouldn’t say it’s all organ specific. I like to keep all the organ stuff that I know and love from records and stuff. I like to do just do what I hear in my writing, and so that’s kind of where I would hope my own voice comes in.
GC: Yeah, I feel like that's the cool thing about jazz is you eventually want to do your own thing. I wanted to ask you, as a jazz educator… and I’m somewhat of a jazz educator… but it’s like, how do you explain to students that you know they’re supposed to be improvising, but at the same time they’re supposed to develop certain skills and they’re supposed to check out certain recordings?
ML: How do you do it? You just said it… you got to tell them recordings to listen to, whether they’ll do it or not, how do you get them to do it? I don't know, that's actually the question.
GC: Well, you said it yourself. You were a record collector and…. I probably don't have nearly as many recordings as you do, or knowledge of recordings, but it’s something that I’m always interested in or curious about. I mean, you and I had to actually go buy records or even buy CD’s. I find that a lot of students these days, even with all the stuff that’s for free on YouTube or…
ML: Yeah, I know, they don't have to do anything. They can get the entire collection for free somewhere on the Internet, but I think that’s actually detrimental to their focusing. You know, nobody can focus.
There’s no focus anymore on anything. Everybody’s just collecting. You want every Jimmy Smith record and boom, you get every Jimmy Smith record in one file or something. You download it for two days and it’s on your computer… do you listen to it? I don't know… how do you listen to it? How do you tackle… how do you really get into that record? I remember buying a record and it only had five or six cuts on it and you just listened to it every day, like two or three times, and suddenly you memorized all the solos and you knew every great little moment that came up. You went along slowly, getting that record digested, and I don't think you would do the same if you had every record by that guy right away in your entire collection. You’re just going to get into a little bit of it and maybe you’re going to start… you have so much you might just start skipping through it like, listen to the first few moments and what’s next, what’s next. And the next thing you know, you didn’t listen to hardly anything all the way through.
And this is what I find is happening in every direction today… it’s like everyone is texting and talking on the phone and watching TV at the same time. It’s like… people go out to dinner and if they come into Smoke, they’ll be eating dinner, listening to us play, and texting. And never talking to each other… it’s an incredible amount of (sigh) I don’t know what do you call it? Stimulus? Stimulation? It’s overstimulation, I think.
GC: Yeah.
ML: People are overstimulated. They just can’t focus in on anything anymore, and that’s a problem I think with jazz music because you have to focus in on it. You can’t just put it on and clean your house. I mean, you can do that too, but for the student, the musician, you’ve got to really focus in on it and you’ve got to digest it and get it inside of you. It’s not just in your brain… you got to take the whole thing and just breathe it in, and you’re not going to do that if you’re just listening to two cuts of this record and two cuts of that record and not even all the way through…. and then you’re going to go and get on the computer and look at YouTube or whatever… which can be great too because I’ve been finding unbelievable stuff on YouTube.
GC: It’s amazing.
Ahmad Jamal
ML: Now, I’m a Ahmad Jamal freak, I love him, and I thought I had most of his records but I must have found at least six or seven last night on YouTube that I never heard of, like more contemporary. He’s playing great Fender-Rhodes, and I’m like, wow, here’s a whole new pile of Ahmad Jamal I can listen to on YouTube!
So there’s a great aspect to it; it’s exciting, really, but, getting back to your question about students; it’s a difficult task, plus not only is it the idea of how automatically they can get so much for free, but, also, what are they listening to? And how are they listening to it? When I was a young guy, all we were listening to were the masters like Hank Jones, Cedar Walton, McCoy Tyner… you know, you bought those records, Jimmy Smith, whoever, you knew the cats you went out and you got Miles Davis records… but now, I don't think young guys are doing that anymore. You know what I’m talking about? It seems like they’re more into the guys just above their generation now.
The young guys are into who I consider to still be young guys, and they’re very talented and they got a lot to say and there’s a good reason to be into them. However, the thing that’s getting lost is that kind of focus. The focus is much more spread out now. You’re trying to tell these kids, “No, you go listen to this one, listen to this record, that’s what you got to do, you know?”
And then it’s like you’re giving them an assignment where… I don’t know, when I was a kid, we couldn’t wait to get somebody to tell us, go listen to this record, and then once you heard the record you were like, wow, this is the greatest record; we’re going to hear it a hundred thousand times, and then I want to buy every record by this guy. That's how it went… it was never like a chore, like we had to discipline ourselves to do it or something. It was enjoyment… it was the enjoyment, like to sit around with your friends and listen to records; that was big fun.
GC: Do you think people do that anymore?
ML: I don’t know… I tend to doubt it, although I think some people must, but I mean, back in the day… I’m 55 now, and I remember very well before there was even a cassette player. Never mind computers. There was no such thing as computers for everybody, so things have really, really changed radically in that direction. So I’m just saying, all we had was records to have fun with. It was either records or TV, so if you were hanging out with your friends and you didn’t watch TV, you listened to records, and it was a little easier because there weren’t that many choices. Now it’s just ridiculous how much stuff people can do in their leisure time. So I guess part of the bad effect is that I don’t know if kids are sitting around in their college dorms listening to recordings like we did back in the day. I don’t know, how old are you, George?
GC: I’m 41.
ML: So you’re quite a bit younger than me. How was it when you were going to school?
GC: Well. I remember in my younger years, the 70’s and 80’s, my parents had a small record collection and we actually had an 8-track tape player.
ML: Right, I remember those.
GC: They only had a handful of 8-track tapes. They had some records but at a certain I started signing records out of the library, because my parents only had some…
ML: Your parents were into jazz?
GC: Not so much. My mother was into Judy Garland and some classical music, which was cool, and some pop things, some Stevie Wonder. But some of my band directors turned me on to Clifford Brown and Herbie Hancock and Coltrane and I would go to the library and sign out records. I tell my students, I had to walk to the library, sign out these records and then I had them for a couple weeks and really listened to them as opposed to, “Oh, now I have everything Trane has ever done or everything Herbie Hancock has ever done.” I really listened to those recordings that I had and got into them. People don’t understand… I tell students now that they should take advantage of what they have now, they have access to all this stuff.
ML: That’s what I was saying about how they’re listening or what they’re listening for. It’s amazing… I do a jazz for teens program. I’ve been doing that since the 90’s out in Newark at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I’ve had quite a few students who have gone all the way through college and are now out here… and are some of the new cats that are getting record dates and doing all that kind of stuff ….and they come and sit in with me at Smoke. I’ve been keeping in touch with a lot of them. Some of them start there at 14 years old, so I get them in my ensemble when they’re maybe 15.
Billy Higgins
I don’t really run my ensemble in a democratic way, I just tell them, you do this, you do that. The drummers- I tell them look, you listen to whoever you want, Bill Stewart, Brian Blade, whoever you like, but you got to listen to Billy Higgins. I want you to transcribe his comping and I want to see it next week. And I force them because they’re like, “Billy Higgins? Aww, come on!” And this kid, this drummer who’s in New York now who’s playing really great, he’s only 18 now, but he told me that my ensemble changed his life, once he started to get into Billy Higgins and Louis Hayes and people like that. Because they all know Philly Joe Jones, the top names, but they don’t listen to Billy Higgins, and I see him as a key figure in drumming. So I get them right into that thing that Billy Higgins does. This drummer said that it changed his whole thing. Now he’s playing his butt off, and he swings like crazy and he knows how to comp.
Because I just enforced it. I was just like, “No, bring it in, I want to see  the whole thing transcribed next week- all the comping,” and they bring it in and start playing like crap, and the next thing you know they’re starting to get it, and by the end of the year they’re sounding much better just from that. But you got to force feed it.


  1. killing!!! thanks so much!

  2. Hey,
    Thanks to both of you. This is a great interview. I'll make sure to pass it on
    Scott Napoli

  3. Thanks. MD rules.

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