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.
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.”
In 1984, MacDonald came to L.A. because “there was jazz work here. I studied with Spud Murphy and I got to know Joe Pass,” the noted musical theorist and guitar virtuoso, respectively. “That Fender bass I play used to belong to Joe, then to John Pisano, then Lee Ritenour — so it's got a lot of history. Wes Montgomery recorded a couple of titles with one just like it.”
“I got in on the tail-end of Donte's,” MacDonald notes, citing the long-lived North Hollywood jazz club (1966-1988). “I used to play at Alphonse's; Dick and I had a 14-year gig at Bandera's in Brentwood.”
Tash grew up in Glendale and his childhood classical studies are evident in his playing.
“I wish we had a bass player,” he grins. “You'll hear some stride in my left hand because I have to maintain that rhythm. It's natural to fall into that, with the Chopin 10ths.”
He's a retired high school band director who worked extensively with show bands in Las Vegas and elsewhere. “I played, arranged and conducted for Judy Bell,” he says, referring to one of the current stars of the Palm Springs Follies.
Back on the stand, MacDonald acknowledges the sparse applause with “Thank you, lady and gentleman....” After a filigreed exchange on the bossa “Watch What Happens” and a rubato guitar into that lays a welcome mat down for the piano on “If they Asked Me I Could Write a Book,” some visitors file in and sit nearby at the bar. Drummer Jack LeCompte, fresh from his job at redwhite+bluezz in Pasadena, and tenor saxophonist Dave Bictorino greet MacDonald and Tash. Lecompte protests that he didn't even bring along his brushes, but Bicorino assembles his horn, with its metal mouthpiece.
They get loose with “I Remember You,” and the saxophonist calls “Willow Weep for Me.” His upper register has the airy, Stan Getz vibrato, but the low notes have heft and weight. More ballads — “Darn that Dream” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” — have the trio growing more soulful with each chorus. MacDonald and company is giving forth a lovers' soundtrack for the price of a beer. Too bad more people weren't on hand to take advantage of it.
Where: Jax Bar & Grill, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale
When: Tuesday, Oct. 8.
More info: (818) 500-1604, pmcaonline.org
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.