As if in a vision from the 1960s, Lou Donaldson, his alto sax, and his sometime co-conspirator then and now, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, delivered an evening of remarkably fresh, swinging soul-jazz in a rare Southern California date for the Big Apple-based Donaldson. In his first gig at the Bakery ever, the youthful looking 75-year-old seemed to be in full, pristine possession of his powers.
Donaldson has not only survived most of his peers from the early years of bebop, he has also gracefully outlasted his own peak of popularity in the late-’60s and the subsequent backlash against soul-jazz (now happily reversed) by the bop-minded jazz press. His old string of Blue Note burners like “Alligator Boogaloo,” “Midnight Creeper” and “Hot Dog” that once lit up the jukeboxes and jazz radio — often with Dr. Smith right alongside — are enjoying a second life on CD, and he returned to the soul-jazz lode with some fine albums for Milestone in the early ’90s.
Whether reworking “Blues Walk” and “Alligator Boogaloo” for the umpteenth time or tackling a straight-ahead “Bye Bye Blackbird” and a supercharged “Cherokee,” Donaldson still has a lot to say, his soulful blues-drenched slurs set right in the pocket, his Parker-esque bop flurries not conceding a thing in technique. His alto still has that atypically majestic quality that you usually encounter only from tenor and baritone players, particularly when caressing the familiar contours of “Laura.”
Donaldson also remains a throwback to a more entertaining era in jazz, with his high-pitched, often comic, slightly paranoid monologues and signature vocal blues, “Whiskey Drinkin’ Woman.”
The turbaned Smith oozed his own brand of low-key, carefully constructed charisma on the Hammond B-3, using space, expression and low volume levels to create tension and suspense, only to release it with crashing blasts at the close of each solo. Guitarist Randy Johnston swung amiably right along with the controlled grooves generated by Smith’s bass pedals and Adam Cruz’s drums. These musicians listen to each other, adjusting easily to this idiosyncratic room, and they conveyed the feeling that they were having a ball.