A journeyman in the best sense of the word, Los Angeles-based jazz guitarist Doug MacDonald exhibits an easy, old school, blues-tinged sense of swing that recalls such straight ahead influences as Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessel. His recent outings as a leader have showcased his remarkable versatility, ranging from 2006’s classy quartet session Gentle Rain (featuring the late pianist Ross Tompkins) to 2009’s ambitious orchestral project Fourth Stream (for 13-piece brass and woodwind ensemble augmented with strings on all but two tracks) and 2011’s stripped-down trio recording It’s a Blue World. This time out, MacDonald returns to the organ group setting that he explored on 1997’s Organ-izing (which featured big-toned tenor great Plas Johnson and organist Art Hillery). And the results are scintillating.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Honolulu, where he began his long journey as a working musician, MacDonald has been on the Los Angeles scene for nearly 30 years. An accomplished player-composer-arranger, he plays with a warm tone and a deliberate linear approach and shines on relaxed grooves that allow him to testify with authority. But he also gleefully embraces up-tempo romps, where he readily reveals his bop roots and infinite capacity to burn. He covers all those bases on Reorganized. On this potent outing, MacDonald is surrounded by a pair of like-minded old school burners on the LA scene in tenor saxophonist Clarence Webb and 70-year-old Hammond B-3 master and Columbus, Ohio native Bobby Pierce (who recorded with a young Pat Martino in his band on a couple of Cobblestone and Muse sessions from the early 1970s). Tenor saxophonist Rodger Neumann and drummer Harold Acey round out the personnel on MacDonald’s 11th as a leader.
The collection kicks off with the jaunty, loping shuffle-swing number "G Jazz Blues," which establishes the down home flavor of this inspired organ outing. The bouncy and ebullient 16-bar swinger "G.G.," named for another significant MacDonald influence, the great guitarist and Blue Note recording artist Grant Green, demonstrates the tight unisons between MacDonald’s guitar and Webb’s tenor. "Bandera," named for the Los Angeles restaurant where MacDonald has played for thirteen years, is a mellow bossa nova that features a string of potent solos from Pierce, Webb and the leader. The up-tempo swinger "Bat Into Hell," with its allusions to John Coltrane’s "Lazy Bird," is yet another showcase for MacDonald and Pierce both together and as individual soloists.
Drummer Acey steps out with some relaxed vocals on a swinging rendition of the standard "I Remember You" while MacDonald showcases his beautiful chord melody playing on an unaccompanied medley of "Moon River" (a tune forever identified with the late crooner Andy Williams) and "Moonlight in Vermont"” (a hit in 1952 for Stan Getz and guitar great Johnny Smith). Pierce, a real-deal B-3 burner from way back, showcases his considerable keyboard chops along with some earthy vocals on a dynamic rendition of the blues classic "Muddy Water." Pierce also wails with unparalleled authority on the B-3 here.
And the melancholy Gershwin staple "Isn’t It a Pity" is a perfect showcase for the smoky tenor sax of elder Webb. "Zoot Sims did a version of that tune with Oscar Peterson that I remember,"” says MacDonald. "And maybe I had that in mind when we recorded this."
MacDonald’s gorgeous unaccompanied guitar intro to "Yesterdays"” segues to an inventive 3/4 version of that oft-recorded jazz standard. Tenor saxophonist Neumann joins MacDonald on the frontline for some intricate unisons on the guitarist’s exuberant original "Indecisive"” (based on the old Swing era Charlie Shavers number "Undecided"”) and the shuffling "I’ve Got the Minor Blues," a tune that MacDonald can trace back to his earliest gigs in Hawaii. The seasoned guitarist exhibits some beautiful chord melody work on an inventive take on "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," which shifts nimbly from alluring samba to swing. And he closes out Reorganized with his accomplished crew wailing in up-tempo mode on a rendition of Duke Pearson’s bebop classic, "Jeannine."”
"This album was more originals than I usually do,"” says MacDonald. "I write so much for the large band and a lot of those tunes I end up putting in the small group. When you write for large ensemble, it’s more about the arrangements. This is the opposite. It’s more about opening up rather than reading…just like any bebop group."” You can feel them stretching from track to track on this auspicious and burning old school session.
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to JazzTimes, Jazziz and Downbeat. He is also the author of JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius” and co-author of Here and Now: The Autobiography of Pat Martino.