Blues On Top
Street Date: August 12, 2022

Label: Jazz Avenue 1

Veteran drummer Mike Clark and stalwart bassist Leon Lee Dorsey continue their fruitful collaboration with the release of Blues On Top in the company of renowned pianist Mike LeDonne, filling out a swinging, top tier trio. 

Blues On Top brings Clark and Dorsey together for their fifth recording with each collaboration finding the superb rhythm section augmented by a star third guest. Last year, they released Freedom Jazz Dance, a high-flying Latin jazz tribute to the great Hilton Ruíz with Cuban-born pianist Manuel Valera. Previous collaborations include Thank You Mr. Mabern (2021) with the late Mabern himself, Play Sgt. Pepper (2020) with pianist Michael Wolff and Monk Time (2019), alongside guitarist Greg Skaff. Each release demonstrates a different side of Dorsey and Clark’s deep musical simpatico, with the end result colored beautifully by their chosen featured guest. 

Mike LeDonne joins the vigorous rhythm section this time around. From the first notes of “Blues On Top”— his rousing take on Wynton Kelly’s “Blues on Purpose”— it’s evident that this session has been well paired. “Chemistry between musicians is one of those great mysteries,” said LeDonne. “It either happens or it doesn’t, in this case it did!” Magically, the March 2022 session that would become Blues On Top marked the first time these three musicians had ever played together. 

The New York-based pianist and organist is a permanent fixture on the contemporary jazz scene, having built a significant presence since the late 1980’s. A first-call sideman for jazz icons such as Milt Jackson and Benny Golson, LeDonne has made his mark on numerous recordings as a sideman and leader. Since 2003, he has steadily released well-received albums on the Savant label, including two piano trio recordings, one being 2019’s critically acclaimed Partners in Time with Christian McBride and Lewis Nash. Now with Blues On Top, LeDonne once again showcases his undeniable prowess in this intimate format. 

Similar in approach to its predecessors on the Jazz Avenue 1 label, Blues On Top is decidedly “old school” – and unapologetically so. Opener “Blues On Top,” finds Clark tipping from the outset and playing the same quick fills on his kit that bass great Paul Chambers played on Wynton Kelly’s original 1965 version of “Blues on Purpose” (either from the Verve studio album Undiluted or the live Xanadu album Blues on Purpose, recorded at the Half Note). Once they get out of that stop-time head, it’s off to the races, with Dorsey walking insistently while channeling his inner P.C. and LeDonne stretching mightily on his burning solo. “Wynton Kelly was one of my biggest idols,” said LeDonne.  The last thing I wanted to do was try to play that tune straight up because there’s no way I could ever get close to what Wynton did. So I wrote ‘Blues On Top’ with the same accents but featuring the drums.   

From that energized homage, they slide into a loping swing rendition of Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments.” A decided McCoy Tyner influence comes out on LeDonne’s cascading solo here while Dorsey offers a beautifully melodic, vocal-like bass solo. LeDonne’s “Lock It in the Pocket,” a showcase for Clark’s signature time displacement chops, finds the drummer and pianist engaged in some conversational exchanges midway through. Clark’s solo at the tag is the perfect culmination of this funky track.                     

Clark’s clever, busily swinging arrangement of “Willow Weep for Me” is a highlight. On this track, LeDonne stretches out while Clark maintains a lower flame on his intricate, Elvin Jones-influenced solo. Dorsey next carries the plaintive melody on a gentle rendition of “Angel Eyes,” underscored by Clark’s delicate brushwork, before delivering an emotive bass solo. 

The trio then tears through a brief but blazing rendition of Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues,” paced by Dorsey’s impeccable walking, which is right out of the Leroy Vinnegar/Israel Crosby school. LeDonne responds by channeling his inner Bud Powell-Art Tatum on this extraordinary chops showcase. “I’ve been wanting to record ‘C Jam Blues’ for, like, 40 years,” added Clark. “It was one of the first tunes I ever played that released me from the Gene Krupa/Louie Bellson path I was on in sixth grade. And as soon as I played it in junior high big band, I felt like I was a real honest-to-goodness bebopper. I even bought a beret and shades the next day.”

Their version of Cedar Walton’s dynamic and elaborate “Jacob’s Ladder” drifts into the Ahmad Jamal zone with Clark’s busily shifting undercurrent setting a sly tone, while their interpretation of Dizzy’s “Birks’ Works” is imbued with deep blue hues. Dorsey carries the familiar melody on top of Clark’s slick brushwork before breaking away for a potent solo of his own. As he explained, “I tried to get a combination of Ray Brown’s very melodic approach and a little of the fluidness of Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, just in terms of getting some less idiomatic qualities.” They close out with a rousing, shuffling version of The Beatles classic “Can’t Buy Me Love,” with energized, blues-drenched solos by Dorsey and LeDonne. It’s a fitting way to end – just three consummate musicians swinging at the highest level. 

Freedom Jazz Dance
Street Date: August 20, 2021
Label: Jazz Avenue 1

Freedom Jazz Dance is the latest release from Leon Lee Dorsey alongside drummer extraordinaire Mike Clark and the brilliant Cuban-born pianist Manuel Valera. Dedicated to the late Puerto Rican-born piano master Hilton Ruiz, whom Dorsey regularly played with in his last years (appearing on 2004’s A New York Story and 2005’s Steppin’ with T.P., the pianist’s dedication to his own mentor, Tito Puente), this collection of eight tunes highlights that same kind of bilingual musical aesthetic that Ruiz embraced throughout his amazing career.

Freedom Jazz Dance is the fourth collaboration between Dorsey and Clark for Dorsey’s Jazz Avenue 1 label. While each outing has featured a different third guest, the rhythmic hookup between Dorsey and Clark has underscored those recordings. Beginning with 2019’s Monk Time (with guitarist Greg Skaff) and continuing with 2020’s Play Sgt. Pepper (with pianist Michael Wolff) and 2021’s Thank You Mr. Mabern (featuring the late, great hard bop pianist Harold Mabern), this uncommonly flexible rhythm tandem has set a benchmark for conversational playing together.

Special guest on their fourth outing, Freedom Jazz Dance, is the astounding Manuel Valera. A free-spirited musician with command of multiple idioms, the Havana native was originally a saxophonist before switching full-time to piano after moving to New York City in 2000 to study at The New School. Valera debuted as a leader with 2004’s Forma Nueva and to date has racked up 13 albums as a leader. A chopsmeister of the highest order, in the tradition of fellow countryman Gonzalo Rubalcaba, he is as conversant in bebop as he is in Cuban son and danzón, as hip to Bud Powell as Arsenio Rodriguez. And with Dorsey and Clark holding it down, he shines on Freedom Jazz Dance.

They kick it off with an exploration of Eddie Harris’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Fueled by Clark’s loosely interactive touch, signature bounce on the snare and precision fills on the kit, this open-ended interpretation allows for some daring harmonic and rhythmic extrapolations by Valera while Dorsey holds it down with his deep-toned funky pulse. Clark brings it down behind Dorsey’s solo, playing softer but no less busy, a la Billy Higgins, as Valera alternates between Herbie-esque comping and hypnotic son montuno grooving.

Dorsey’s gentle “Baptism” is underscored by Clark’s understated yet eminently hip approach on the kit while Valera joins the conversation with flowing lyricism on the keys. Valera then brings the requisite gospel feel to Hilton Ruiz’s boogaloo, “Home Cookin’,” a tune previously recorded with a more pronounced Latin feel on the pianist’s 1987 album, Something Grand, and also on 1992’s Manhattan Mambos. Clark puts up an old school backbeat on this funky number, reminiscent of Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song,” while Valera blows with funky abandon on his solo. Midway through, it shifts to mid tempo swing mode with Clark injecting a persuasive spang-a-lang on the ride cymbal and Dorsey walking insistently, inspiring Valera to different directions in his solo, before the piece returns to the funky theme.

Dorsey’s gorgeous ballad “Until the End of Time” showcases the trio at its most sensitive, with Clark providing zen-like brushwork and Valera showing graceful restraint. Radically switching gears, they jump into an exhilarating Afro-Cuban reading of the standard “Autumn Leaves,” which again shifts midway through from 12/8 to a swinging 4/4 uptempo groove fueled by Dorsey and Clark. Valera channels his inner Bud Powell on this swing section before the tune returns to entrancing 12/8 mode, ultimately shifting back and forth between worlds on this bilingual rendering.

Dorsey’s bass carries the melody upfront on a gentle rubato exploration of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” before the trio segues to an alluring bossa nova groove at the 1:14 mark. Dorsey’s solo on this hauntingly beautiful Jobim staple is pure joy. The trio then swings with a vengeance on Ruiz’s hard driving “New Arrival” (which appeared on the pianist’s 2005 album Steppin’ with T.P. and itself is an updating of his tune “Arrival” from 1991’s Piano Man with Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.) Valera breaks out his Chick Corea-Bud Powell chops on this uptempo burner while Clark also turns in an extended show-stopping solo at the three-minute mark.

The collection closes on a relaxed note with Dorsey’s Monk-ish blues “Chillin’.” With the bassist walking in old school Leroy Vinnegar fashion and Clark laying back on the kit, Valera takes harmonic and rhythmic liberties here, alluding to Monk’s “Epistrophy” along the way.

While the individual virtuosity of Dorsey, Clark and Valera is undeniable throughout Freedom Jazz Dance, it’s their irrepressible chemistry that wins over listeners. It’s a classic example where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. 

Thank You, Mr. Mabern!
Street Date: January 20, 2021
Label: JazzAvenue

Thank You, Mr. Mabern! is the latest release by jazz bassist Leon Lee Dorsey. Recorded in July 2019, two months prior to the passing of jazz luminary Harold Mabern, the album is the swan song for the great pianist and composer, his final recording. This posthumous release is not only Dorsey’s personal farewell to Mabern, it also echoes the sentiments of jazz fans everywhere in appreciation for Mabern’s prolific 60 years. Mabern appears here in top-form and is joined by Dorsey on bass as well as former Headhunters drummer, Mike Clark.

The late Memphis-born, hard bop pianist Harold Mabern was a revered elder figure on the scene when he died on September 17, 2019 at the age of 83. His authentic soul-infused jazz and deep blues swing inherent in his Memphis roots, coupled with a profound command of the Great American Songbook, amassed the admiration of generations of musicians, including bassist-producer Leon Lee Dorsey. “I had been working with Harold in George Coleman’s octet and we did some quartet gigs together,” said Dorsey. “But, I just had not really done a recording with him. And we were kind of kicking it around last year about doing just that.”

Dorsey, whose fluid and ubiquitous bass has energized jazz masters Lionel Hampton and Art Blakey with his Jazz Messengers, as well as Grammy winning jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, brought this album to fruition in his Upper West Side Manhattan home studio. The bassist had already produced a string of trio recordings with Mike Clark, a veteran drummer who provides a strong, rhythmic foundation on this recording. Dorsey notes, “Mike has his own legendary status being from the Bay Area and playing with Herbie Hancock, but he also played with a lot of great blues and R&B artists in his career. He and Harold had a lot in common and they kind of fell in love with each other at the session. Harold came in playing like a 21 year old. He was on fire — Mike fueled it.

Thank You, Mr. Mabern! features masterful renditions of quintessential compositions popularized throughout Mabern’s long and illustrious career. Mabern’s singular, soul-infected sound sets the stage on the rousing opener, “Rakin’ and Scrapin’,” title track of the pianist’s 1969 Prestige album. The three establish a recognizable synergy — Dorsey’s bubbling bass line falls directly into the plump backbeat laid by Clark as Mabern cues into the harmony with his left hand, letting his right soar with refined, melodic invention.

Mabern conjures shades of McCoy Tyner with his sophisticated, strapped approach on Frank Foster’s classic jazz waltz, “Simone.” His syncopated, canorous phrasing and Clark’s tasteful, broken swing give the track a fresh, spirited feel. Dorsey demonstrates his improvisational acuity with a lyrical solo, supported beautifully by Mabern’s sensitive comping. The group shifts gears with “Bye Bye Blackbird” which features Dorsey on the melody and Clark on brushes. The trio returns to its mid-60’s soul-jazz underpinnings with a particularly soulful take on Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” Clark’s slyly, articulated approach here shifts back and forth between Clyde Stubblefield and Billy Higgins. 

The album concludes with an entrancing 6/8 take on Gershwin’s “Summertime”, which includes an exploratory bass solo by Dorsey and culminates in dramatic storytelling on the kit by Clark. On a rollicking version of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’,” Clark greases his backbeat in bacon fat while Mabern digs into his Memphis roots for a bluesy-churchy interpretation.

On a frisky, polyrhythmic rendition of “Softly As In a Morning Sunrise,” Mabern conjures up connections to his two biggest influences, Ahmad Jamal and Phineas Newborn. And on “Misty,” another bass feature for Dorsey, the pianist uncannily channels the signature style of the tune’s composer, Erroll Garner, with his steady left hand comping and delicately-placed right hand octaves. (Catch Mabern deftly quoting from “I Want to Talk About You” in his gorgeous solo.)

 The album closes on a scintillating note with a rendition of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice,” paced by Clark’s irrepressible swing factor, Dorsey’s indefatigable walking bass lines, and Mabern’s signature burn. “Harold was so cordial,” said bassist-entrepreneur Dorsey. “I had everything mapped out on the production side with my list of tunes and notes on each one. But I really wanted Harold to come in, have a good time, and not have to think about anything. No reading, no nothing. We just hit — it was a tremendous experience. I feel like I got the best from both of these legends in this session.”

 “Thank You, Mr. Mabern!” documents the ingenuity, openness, and soulfulness trademark to Harold Mabern’s sound. The album captures a celebration of Mabern’s influences and legacy and stands as an inimitable union of these three consummate players. The rare magic evoked is chronicled in all of its vibrancy on this album’s nine tracks.

for Blues on Top

CHRIS SPECTOR
MIDWEST RECORD
"A classic piano trio sound, this driving straight ahead set is a bad ass swinger that clears the dross from the palette in no time flat." Read the review here.

LEONID AUSKERN
JAZZ QUAD
Read the review in Russian here.

MICHAEL TOLAND
THE BIG TAKEOVER
"..these guys clearly enjoy their musical interaction, playing everything with a relaxed intensity." Read the review here.

JIM HYNES
MAKING A SCENE
"Rather than breaking any new ground, this trio basks in the joy of taking older material into joyously swinging territory. You’ll be tapping your foot or swaying back and forth. It’s impossible to sit still." Read the review here.

JACK BOWERS
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Blues on Top marks the fifth album in a row on which Clark and Dorsey have formed a trio by inviting a guest artist to sit in." Read the review here.

MIKE GREENBLATT
GOLDMINE MAGAZINE
"Sometimes you just want music that makes you feel good.." Read the review here.

for Freedom Jazz Dance

RAUL DA GAMA
LATIN JAZZ NETWORK
"The compelling writing and exquisite performance throughout this session makes for an utterly memorable album." Read this review here.

 

JOHN CHACONA
"Pittsburgh-born bassist Leon Lee Dorsey has had a busy 2021." Read the review here.

JIM HYNES
MAKING A SCENE
"Bassist Leon Lee Dorsey and legendary drummer Mike Clark are a tandem that just keeps on chugging, raising curiosity as to who will be the third member to join them on their next outing." Read the review here.

SCOTT YANOW
JAZZIZ
"Freedom Jazz Dance keeps listeners’ interest throughout." Read the full review here.

PATRICK DALLONGEVILLE
PARIS-MOVE
Read the full review in French here.

VICENTE TOLEDO ROHENA
FUNDACION-NACIONAL
Read the full review in Spanish here.

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICAL MEMOIRS
"Leon Dorsey’s bass walks with powerful steps and Valera’s piano moans the blues through his steady fingers." Read the full review here.

for Thank You, Mr. Mabern!

MICHAEL J. WEST
DOWNBEAT
"This is a wonderful set of trio recordings, bittersweet of course – but we’re all the better off for having this. Maybe Mabern was forgotten somewhat in the scheme of things but he’s a delightful player and you hear that here in a fitting send-off." Read this review here.

 

SIMON SWEETMAN
OFF THE TRACKS
"This is a wonderful set of trio recordings, bittersweet of course – but we’re all the better off for having this. Maybe Mabern was forgotten somewhat in the scheme of things but he’s a delightful player and you hear that here in a fitting send-off." Read this review here.

 

MIKE JURKOVIC
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
This entire project is a nod to Mr. Mabern’s 6-decade career in music.  It’s also a carefully recorded piece of jazz history with a spotlight on producer/composer/bass player, Leon Lee Dorsey. Read this review here.

STEVE FEENEY
THE ARTS FUSE
"The trio’s take underlines the point that Mabern could move in modal realms, with a force that was always closely accompanied by grace." Read this review here.

DEE DEE MCNEIL
MUSICALMEMOIRS'S BLOG
This entire project is a nod to Mr. Mabern’s 6-decade career in music.  It’s also a carefully recorded piece of jazz history with a spotlight on producer/composer/bass player, Leon Lee Dorsey. Read this review here.

 

MATT MICUCCI
JAZZIZ
"The album was recorded in July 2020, two months prior to Mabern’s passing, and features masterful renditions of quintessential compositions popularized throughout the great pianist/composer’s illustrious career." Read The Week in Jazz here and 10 Albums You Need to Know: January 2021 here

ALL ABOUT JAZZ
Thank You, Mr. Mabern! documents the ingenuity, openness, and soulfulness trademark to Harold Mabern’s sound. The album captures a celebration of Mabern’s influences and legacy and stands as an inimitable union of these three consummate players. The rare magic evoked is chronicled in all of its vibrancy on this album’s nine tracks. Read this announcement here.

 

KEVIN JOHNSON
NO TREBLE
Just under two years ago, the jazz world suffered a major blow with the loss of pianist Harold Mabern, who mastered the post-bop sound. Now his final studio recording is available thanks to bassist and band leader Leon Lee Dorsey. Read this announcement here.

 

BASS MAGAZINE
Read the full album announcement here.

WULF MULLER
WULF'S MUSIC + BLOG
"Not to be missed!!" Read this review here.

 

HECTÓR MARTIN
CANCIÓN A QUEMARROPA
El músico Leon Lee Dorsey tiene el placer de presentarnos su nuevo disco que ha salido bajo el título Thank You, Mr. Mabern! Verá a la luz el próximo 20 de enero y ha contado con la participación del legendario pianista Harold Mabern. Para leer mas presione aquí.

 

JIM HYNES
GLIDE MAGAZINE
Read the full album review here.

D. OSCAR GROOMES
O'S PLACE 

"Bassist Leon Lee Dorsey is a solid bandleader.." Read the full review in the Summer 2021 O's Place Newsletter.

YVES SPORTIS
JAZZ HOT
Read the full review in French here.