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Jazz infuses an intimate setting

Expert musicians pump out effortless gems to an unfortunately small crowd.

October 01, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Jazz guitarist Doug MacDonald performs Tuesday, Oct. 8 at Jax in Glendale.
Jazz guitarist Doug MacDonald performs Tuesday, Oct.… (Courtesy of Doug…)

It's Tuesday night at Jax on Brand Avenue. Jazz guitarist Doug MacDonald has the raised platform that serves as a bandstand tonight in the cozy, wood-lined room. With pianist Dick Tash, MacDonald is working his way through jazz standards and gems from the Great American Songbook. They're conjuring musical diamonds, unfortunately, to a near-empty room.

MacDonald begins a tune by playfully batting around the venerable chord changes of “I Got Rhythm,” George Gershwin's bedrock for countless jazz numbers, in an exploratory manner. Before long, Tash falls in, providing rhythmic sinew and harmonic possibilities, as MacDonald steers the tune into “Lester Leaps In,” a “Rhythm” variant by the Count Basie Orchestra. Double-time single-note flights are juxtaposed against judiciously placed chords while a boisterous trio of patrons at the other end of the room fulminates about the new iPhone.

He's a big man who is exceedingly gentle with his guitar. It's a hollow body Buscarino, made by a master luthier in North Carolina whose models retail for as much $24,000.

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MacDonald's sound may be intimate, but his flat-picking can be sprightly. After suggesting a well-known Henry Mancini film theme, Tash shoots back: “You mean ‘The Days of Rolling Winos'?” MacDonald's fingers effortlessly glide over the fretboard as he spins elegant countermelodies over Tash's insistent piano chords for a swing-rooted duet while the Dodgers shut the Giants' water off on a TV screen 10 feet away over the bar.

Switching to a six-string Fender bass, MacDonald transfers his flat-picked agility to Duke Ellington's “Do Nothin' Till You Hear from Me.” It's got the range of a baritone guitar and MacDonald plays it as such, accompanying discreetly while Tash takes off on a typically firm-handed flight.

It's break time. Over a couple of salads with grilled chicken strips, MacDonald and Tash speak about their career trajectories. The guitarist is a Philadelphia native who grew up in Hawaii. “It was rough being a white kid there,” he says, “but after playing a little cello and trombone, I found the guitar and I discovered jazz.” He worked with former Jimmie Lunceford trombonist Trummy Young as a teenager.

“A lot of guys would come to Hawaii to work,” MacDonald says. “I met guitarists Herb Ellis and Johnny Smith there.”

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