Lou Donaldson: Gravy Train (1961) Blue Note


Selection: Gravy Train



Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone) Herman Foster (piano) Ben Tucker (bass) Dave Bailey (drums) Alec Dorsey (congas) recorded Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, April 27, 1961

Donaldson remains the leading exponent of the soul-jazz approach. Yet even at its bluesiest, his playing remains informed by bebop.”

The New York Times
A typical  Discogs contributor review I came across recently:


“Excellent from start to finish. Highly recommended“.


That’s it. Tells you absolutely nothing, other than “I like it”.   Citizen journalism in the age of the Internet: complete poverty of expression. Can do better, mate, try harder.



digitalred1961-300In the foot steps of his signature tune Blues Walk, Gravy Train offers a generous helping of Lou Donaldson bluesy “soul-jazz”. Donaldson’s signature style artfully weaves together bop, blues and soul. Not essential or ground-breaking music, but a bit like the hot dog Lou is munching on the cover, not great cooking, but there is a time and a place for something basically nourishing  and satisfying.

The alto is a hugely flexible vehicle of personal expression. With Art Pepper it becomes a walk in the park, with Dolphy it can morph into an instrument of feverish saturnine  excess; in the wrong hands, the alto can cause … death by saccharin.

With Donaldson, fluent in the bop vocabulary and Parker heritage, the alto turns into liquid silver. Donaldson is one of those infectiously happy players who just loves to play, his alto dancing in the upper register, a heartful lyrical improviser who grabs a tune and runs with it, wherever it takes him, until he is satisfied it’s done. You just join him for the ride.

He is accompanied here by the rolling blues-inflected piano of Herman Foster, a regular feature of Lou’s quintet over 13 years, another of that legion of ultimately under-appreciated players.  Thankfully piano,  not the omni-present soul-jazz organ featured in some of Donaldson’s later cross-over albums –  leaving the field open for real bass as opposed to organ bass pedals. (Campaign For Real Bass!) For added Latin spice, Dave Bailey’s  percussion is supplemented with congas (Alex Dorsey), delivering midpoint between quartet and quintet.

Donaldson  has been recording since 1952, a solid body of work under the aegis of Blue Note which detoured to follow more commercial formula in the ’70s, but seems to have found its way back to bop.  He is one of the few bop  masters still standing and playing today, in his late eighties.

Vinyl: Blue Note BN 4079, NY+®, “P”lastylite, RVG stamp, mono.

Among the first batch of Blue Notes to be released in 1961 on the new NY label , and among the last batch to bear the RVG stamp, replaced later that year by the VAN GELDER stamp, and the time deep groove dies were largely phased out.

The original press according to Cohen should have Side 1 deep groove, though not this one, oh well. Over in “Collector’s Corner” below, a further smidgeon of doubt creeps in, with an earlier label found not identified by Cohen, which goes to show, no-one knows everything.


Collectors Corner

Every copy listed on Popsike refers to the “original” being on NY labels, yet one auction stands out from the crowd as a price outlier at 363 USD, twice the next nearest auction price.

popsike logo 1

Gravy Train claim W63rd Label top price

What caused the price to double that previously? I had to look. That copy claims to be on 47 West 63rd labels. Some mistake?

Gravy Train claim W63rd Label

“Disc has 47 West 63rd NY address on both labels”. No photo but enough to  shoot the price into another league – someone with acute attention to detail, willing to wager a princely sum on a record “visually graded only”, but with that magic description “mint, possibly unplayed”, not something that turns up very often from 1961, and with 47W36rd labels, never at all.

Still, I’m happy with my not quite original, with its grubby cover.  Easy to please. Even enjoy the occasional hot dog.




19 thoughts on “Lou Donaldson: Gravy Train (1961) Blue Note

  1. A late reaction on Lou Donaldson, but why not? (I read somewhere Lou Donaldson was in charge of the reed section of Elvis’ Comeback Special in 1968, until Presley decided to do away with brass and reed. But I forgot where?)

    Nice read on Lou, cheers. Love this album. My favorites, though, are Lou Takes Off, Here ‘Tis and Midnight Creeper. Yes, two organ groups. I love bass but I also love (able and/or great) Hammond playing. Organists play bass pedals, but more often then not, they play bass with the left hand. Easier to manage.

    Have seen Lou Donaldson three times in twenty years time. Enjoyed it very much. Same corny jokes! (about ‘con’fusion artists, the tune Whiskey Women Blues – ‘I put some whiskey in my whiskey, she puts the whiskey into me’) But a great personality and progenitor of hard bop and soul jazz who turned many people on to jazz who otherwise would’ve likely shied away from it.

    Best, Francois

  2. “Excellent from start to finish. Highly recommended“.

    …as if said Discogs reviewer has the respect and notoriety of a Leonard Feather XD smh

    The lead-in to the head of “Gravy Train” is one of my favorite intros of all-time. Every time I hear it start with the bass and the congas, I get ready, then just before Lou comes in I chant, “ONE! TWO! THREE!” It’s a funny little ritual of mine.

    LJC: I remember you trashing this cover years ago, have your feeling changed at all? It’s always been one of my faves! That bold orange-ish red, the luncheonette counter, and Lou looking like he does not give a single you-know-what!

    Had an original of this once. Cover was VG++, record was very clean but only played strong VG cuz of groove wear (my favorite track by far, the title track, made it through without too much distortion especially with the channels summed, but it got to be too much by the end of each side). Looking back I wish I kept it just for the gorgeous jacket but I’m happy with my RVG CD for now.

    • Yes, I have changed my opinion on this cover, I see it now in a different light, I think it’s great.

      Consistency has never been my strong point: my opinions change as new information comes in. In politics that marks you out as flip-flop, unreliable, don’t know your own mind. Meanwhile over in the real world, that’s how things work.

      It’s a great “man bites dog” picture

    • Dottorjazz: It could be that Blue Note was just using up it’s 63rd St. labels and 4080 was recorded between 4074 and 4075 but given a later release number.
      BLP 4073 Freddie Hubbard – Hub Cap April 9, 1961
      BLP 4074 Horace Parlan March 18, 1961
      BLP 4075 Donald Byrd – The Cat Walk May 2, 1961
      BLP 4076 Horace Silver – Doin’ The Thing May 19, 1961
      BLP 4077 Dexter Gordon – Doin’ Allright May 6, 1961
      BLP 4078 Jimmy Smith – Midnight Special April 25, 1960
      BLP 4079 Lou Donaldson – Gravy Train April 27, 1961
      BLP 4080 Hank Mobley – Workout March 26, 1961

      • Good point. Not saying this applies to Dottor but I’ve seen many collectors make the mistake of nonchalantly concluding that a higher catalog number equals a later recording and/or release date. After studying the relationships between recording date, release date, and catalog number, if I recall correctly, catalog number seems to have more to do with the recording date than the release date, though when it comes to when a record actually got pressed in the middle time, who knows. One might think an album didn’t get pressed until it was ready to be released but I recall hearing or reading somewhere that labels would sometimes leave boxes of unreleased records in a warehouse, holding off on the release until a more lucrative time.

      • Yes i can confirm that 4080, Workout has 2 different labels, 47 W 63 on one Side and New York on the other…As I have a copy like that. Pretty weird really!.

  3. The early Jazz Messenger stuff with Lou & Clifford Brown on the front line is fantastic stuff too. Not an easy task, being placed next to Brownie on stage and trying to keep up. Donaldson proves he was up to the task. No small feat.

  4. Have to say LJC:

    “With Art Pepper it becomes a walk in the park, with Dolphy it can morph into an instrument of feverish saturnine excess; in the wrong hands, the alto can cause … death by saccharin.”

    This statement couldn’t be any more spot on. While I will grab almost anything by Art Pepper (just got The Way It Was and Intensity last week) or Cannonball Adderley, I approach any album with an unknown/lesser alto player with almost as much caution as I do a flute (not that much though. The inclusion of flute is about as bad as seeing the inclusion of strings or the words “arranged by” in the 70s…but I digress).

    Very well articulated. A bad alto song becomes Kenny G. One has to be careful when trying to hip a square to jazz. Picking the wrong cut with the wrong alto can lead to utter embarrassment.

    Great post and great sample cut! Love Sweet Lou, especially when Grant Green is involved. His 70s stuff can be great too though (Hot Dog, Pretty Things are both great).

  5. After listening to your track- excellent BTW- i pulled out my copy of Blues Walk…I was thinking it was a liberty…as I’ve owned it for a decade…surprised to see it was a French 1985 DMM. Tell me again why I’m not suposed to like this pressing? It sounds magnificant…

    • If you like what you hear, that is the only test that matters.

      I have a few French DMMs, that don’t stack up well against originals. That is a privileged comparison not many people are able to make.

      I also have another theory. When something is beautifully played, and beautifully recorded, it must be almost impossible to make a bad reissue of it, the original shines through.

      Blues Walk is simply beautiful.

      • LJC; I have the recent 200G Mono press of Blues Walk from Japan, it does indeed sound fantastic AND the replicated dimpled cover texture is really well done.

    • I have the same press. Agreed – sounds just fine. Plus – that album is absolutely wonderful, so hard not to enjoy.

      My favorite Lou is still Funky Mama, though. For sentimental reasons. It was the album that made me realize I dug jazz. I was 12 years old.

  6. as much as i know it makes me a heretic, i rather enjoy jimmy smith, and now that i have nice speakers, i can appreciate his bass pedaling in full glory. he really is quite good at it. similarly, though, organists like shirley scott knew they needed a bassist to keep up, and i like that too.

    also, i have a lou donaldson album on muse from 1982 that really is quite good. it is called “back street”. highly, highly recommended. the piano is a little weird-sounding, but lou is in top form!

  7. Great album. I have a New York mono copy as well. Didn’t think it was an original, but after reading your description, I am not so sure anymore. My copy is grooved on both labels, but not the classic deep groove, has the ear mark, stamped Van Gelder, and laminated on the front cover only. Had one of those nasty rice paper sleeves, which I dispensed with in favor of a new polyvinyl one. I would rate the record and cover about a VG++.

    I was not always a fan of Lou Donaldson, but have come to appreciate and love his music and style.

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