Earl MacDonald

Mirror of the Mind

Earl MacDonald is a pianist-composer that is now stranger to expressing himself with his pen. MacDonald was the musical director, pianist, and arranger for the Maynard Ferguson Big Bop Nouveau Band from 1998 to 2000. In 2002, MacDonald won the Sammy Nestico Award, for outstanding big band arranging and was selected as a finalist for 2007 Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Award during his affiliation with the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop in New York City. MacDonald’s piece, "Wanton Spirit" was the title track for Kenny Barron's 1994 Grammy-nominated CD. More recently, his compositions for 17-piece jazz orchestra have been performed by: the Airmen of Note, the Westchester Jazz Orchestra, the Millennium Jazz Orchestra, and university-based jazz ensembles from the Eastman School of Music, the University of North Texas, Rutgers, McGill, Rowan University, Lawrence University, Grant MacEwan University, Amherst College, the University of Manitoba and the University of Louisville, among others.

MacDonald is currently an associate professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut, the Winnipeg native earned a bachelor of music degree in jazz performance at McGill University and a master of music degree at Rutgers, where he apprenticed with Kenny Barron. MacDonald’s CD, Re:Visions – Works for Jazz Orchestra received a 2011 Canadian Juno Award nomination for “traditional jazz album of the year.”

MacDonald is also the musical director and composer-in-residence of the Hartford Jazz Society’s “New Directions Ensemble.” It is with the Creative Opportunity Workshop band that MacDonald presents his latest collection of compositions and arrangements entitled, Mirror of the Mind (Death Defying Records).

Mirror of the Mind is comprised of two arrangements and ten MacDonald originals that defy the boundaries of jazz and incorporate a wide range of style that is presented in a unique instrumentation. MacDonald foregoes the bass in the ensemble; instead the cello’s sonorities are used for both melodic and traditional “bass” walking and time keeping. MacDonald expands upon his choice of the cello, “A well-played cello is one of my favorite sounds. As a kid I despised the instrument, as there was a poor, amateur cellist who played the occasional offertory at our church. I remember being in pure agony as she scraped her bow across the strings to render the simplest of hymnal melodies... but I digress. In the proper hands, the cello is capable of so much --- expressive singing, poignant pizzicato annunciations, a wide range of lows and highs, large dynamic contrasts, double stops, the ability to function convincingly like a jazz bassist if needed, blending well with other instruments, etc.. Plus, there is such a vast history of notated and recorded literature from which to learn. The cello has all of these wonderful attributes, while fitting my initial agenda of not using instruments directly associated with jazz, to expand my color palate and stretch my imagination, both compositionally and pianistically.”

The Creative Opportunity Workshop is comprised of Kris Allen on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and MacDonald on piano. The Creative Opportunity Workshop has the sounds of many influences, classical with notes of Brahms, Schumann, Earle Brown, pop with sounds of the Beatles, the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz from Johnny Mandel, Chick Corea, Ornette Coleman and Nat Cole.

“Mirror of the Mind” starts the CD with a beautiful trio statement with MacDonald’s steadily moving voicings with inner tight intervals and Hoffman’s warm cello sounding a flowing melody with Boccato coloring the spaces with cymbals. The music instantly has an expansive feeling and sound to it and brings to mind sounds of Aaron Copeland. The free flowing intro moves to a mid-tempo pulsed framework in which MacDonald develops the theme through a series of harmonic colors and forms. Allen’s saxophone work is very enjoyable; his improvisations are an extension on the mood and in character of the written composition. Hoffman provides a nice pizzicato solo that dances around a central theme. His lines are clear, warm and in good intonation. MacDonald’s various repeating chordal figures are the central driving force to the selection with Boccato’s percussion providing support and coloring.

MacDonald’s treatment of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” is another highlight of the CD. The listener can really appreciate MacDonald’s command of orchestration and counterpoint on this extremely well-known melody. The piano solo finds MacDonald speaking in a clear jazz vocabulary with Hoffman’s cello taking the traditional bass role and walking a line to provide a very nice swinging piano trio moment. MacDonald has this to say about the arrangement and how it developed, “This is one of my favorite Beatles tunes. Several prominent jazz musicians have arranged and recorded it, including Brad Meldau, Mike Holober, and Tony Williams. Two of my college buddies from McGill University, Joel Haynes and Tilden Webb recorded the piece on Joel's trio album, "The Time Is Now". Tilden did the arrangement. I loved the drum beat (reminiscent of Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal's "Poincianna") and thought the underpinning 10ths figure was ingenious. But as much as I liked it, I found myself hearing it "going to some other places" and wishing certain sections could be expanded and developed. As an arranger, this habit when listening can be both a blessing and a curse. Anyways, I decided to act on my impulses and tweak the arrangement to suit my C.O.W. instrumentation.”

Honestly, the colors and musical journeys are just too vast to describe in a simple review. The music has something for everyone and was funded by support from the UCONN School of Fine Arts' 50th Anniversary Interdisciplinary Research and Creative Activity Competition, and the magnanimous backers who supported a Kickstarter campaign to fund manufacturing and promoting the CD. Mirror of the Mind is another great installment in the interesting, endeavors and ever growing catalog of pianist/composer Earl MacDonald, Chamber Jazz at its best.

Tracks: Mirror of the Mind, A Thousand Memories, Beneath, Blackbird, Bidwell Cronies, Disillusionment, Miles Apart, It Was Whispered, A Priori Perception, Where Thinking Leaves Off, I Never Told You, Bottom Feeders.

Personnel: Kris Allen - soprano, alto and tenor saxophones, Christopher Hoffman - cello, Rogerio Bocccato - percussion, Earl MacDonald - piano, compositions and arrangements

Label: Death Defying Records

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H. Allen Williams