Earl has a wonderful new recording out featuring a concept and instrumentation that really fascinates and resonates with me these days.
Take a listen here:
You can purchase his album here:
He was also kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about his music:
To get up and running, I created a body of arrangements using reductions of my big band charts, from the Re:Visions album. Then for each gig, I introduced one or two new pieces, which either replaced one of the original big band reductions or addressed the lack of a certain type of tune within a set, like a ballad or up-tempo burner, for instance. We did about ten performances, in a wide range of venues, and the repertoire grew. In several instances, I continued the practice of reducing big band arrangements, but with newly commissioned works. This was the case with:
· Hit the Road Jack - written for the Westchester Jazz Orchestra
· Dig in Buddy - arranged at the request of the composer Tyler Hornby
· Sordid Sort of Fellow - composed for 2009 Central Massachusetts District Jazz Band
· Smoke and Mirrors - commissioned by Amherst College
· Catch of the Day - arranged for the Grant McEwan University Faculty/Alumni Big Band.
Jackie McLean’s Appointment in Ghana, was arranged because the band and jazz society were Hartford-based, which was Jackie’s home. It was fitting for the ensemble to pay tribute to him, as several people within the band were Jackie’s students… which leads to your other question, regarding sidemen.
Initially, I wanted everyone in the band to either reside in Connecticut or have ties to state, because of the working link with the Hartford Jazz Society. We started out that way, but over time, a few people slipped in from New York and Massachusetts. I worked closely with alto saxophonist, Kris Allen, in making personnel choices. They all needed to be decent readers, strong improvisers, and hungry to play. We also discussed the benefits/importance of working with a diverse set of collaborators.
I wrote an article last summer, describing my relationship with each of musicians who performed on the Open Borders album, which is posted at the following link: http://www.earlmacdonald.com/open-borders/the-musicians/
I spoke with Rob McConnell about my intent to start a band and asked how he arrived at his 10tet’s instrumentation. His advice was to stay clear of woodwind doubles and French horns, because it made finding substitute players difficult. (He also grumbled something about the personalities of horn players.) I listened regarding “doublers,” but ultimately decided to include French horn, as it adds an unexpected, elegant hue to the group. Horn also bridges the brass and saxes, and widens orchestration possibilities.
Jim McNeely’s “Group Therapy” album from 2001 was a big influence when forming my group. I got to hear this band live at a jazz educator’s conference in New York City, which was inspiring. Jim’s group did include both horn and woodwind doubles.
I wrestled with including a fourth saxophone, knowing that it would facilitate 4-part writing in both the brass and saxes, but then again… if I had done this, I might not have arrived at some of the more interesting instrumental combinations I discovered in the process of problem solving.
With regards to the vibe, I wanted my music to be a natural extension and offshoot from folks like Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Slide Hampton, Jim McNeely, Gerry Mulligan and Rob McConnell. I aimed for the music to be informed but not derivative, original but not off-putting. I even wrote down something like this before starting.
The open borders thematic idea came later, when there was a need to articulate what made the album unique. I knew diversity within the ensemble was a special, defining factor, but it wasn’t especially uncommon in jazz. I assembled a group of artist-faculty from UConn’s School of Fine Arts for a brainstorming session over drinks and appetizers. Eventually the open borders concept emerged --- along with a lifetime’s worth of song titles and concepts. It is great to be working amid a community of accomplished artists who are open to helping someone get “unstuck.”
I’ve been taking trumpet lessons with my 11-year-old son, and we practice together every day. I transcribed a bunch of Blue Mitchell solos and we’re now learning to play them. On occasion, I will pull out my trumpet at the jam session I lead at the university, and will play a blues. I’m enjoying this new challenge and I believe it has made me more aware of the physical demands of playing the instrument, which will improve my arranging.
I listen to a wide variety of jazz. Recently I pulled out “Mel Lewis & the Jazz Orchestra: Make Me Smile and Other New Works by Bob Brookmeyer.” It made me question if my writing is becoming too conservative. I may need to up the ante to reflect my political angst.
The WJO piece was part of a suite celebrating Canada’s 150th. Ten jazz composers from across Canada (plus me in the role of expat) were commissioned to write one movement each. I titled my movement “Cirrus,” and described it by saying:
“I miss the prairie skyline. In New England, where I now reside, one has to consciously look up to see the sky. But on the prairies, with no buildings or trees blocking the view, one is struck by the immensity of the blue sky we all share, and how disproportionally small we are, beneath it. Its vastness is equally comforting and disconcerting, providing perspective beyond ourselves.”
The piece for UMASS, entitled “By Our Love,” is more politically charged. It is a reaction to the political tribalism in America which compelled three-quarters of white, evangelical Christians to support a presidential candidate who is seemingly the antithesis of all the things Jesus taught and lived. Elements of my piece are derived from a frequently sung hymn entitled, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” composed in 1968 by then-Catholic priest Peter Scholtes. There is a disturbing paradox to the hymn’s title in the current era, when allegiance to political party appears to take precedence over the tenets of one’s faith.
I plan to revisit this piece and further develop it after some time away from it. I applied for a grant where in conjunction with an illustrator, a musical and visual multi-media experience will be created, to be performed as a catalyst for dialogue. Dialogue will encourage contemplation of the current polarized political climate in the US, and its relationship to faith practices. The music will be performed while the visual plays. An invited interdisciplinary panel of sociologists, political scientists, clergy of different denominations, etc. will use the preceding performance as a springboard for discussion and commentary.
Needless to say, this project really excites me. I think there is potential for selling it as a reproducible event (similar to theatre productions) which could be presented on campuses or churches across the country. We’ll see.
I have a bunch of guest conducting gigs coming up, with high school and middle school regional ensembles. I truly enjoy this type of work, which typically spans a weekend. For a while now, I have been planning to write a series of educational big band charts. It’s just a matter of prioritizing it, and carving out the time. Someday I will make it happen.
Rogerio Boccato is the drummer/percussionist I like using with my C.O.W. ensemble. He has a special magic to his playing that brings the music to unexpected places, but nothing ever feels forced. I can’t imagine playing that music with anyone else. It’s nice to see his career taking off, and that he’s appearing more and more frequently alongside Brian Blade, and within Maria Schneider’s band, for instance.
I am becoming more and more interested in Max Roach, and only in recent years have started becoming acquainted with his work as a leader following the years with Clifford Brown. “We Insist” for example, is so incredibly deep!
There are so many drummers I could name, but I’d be here forever and might just be recreating a list of all the greats. I will offer that Elvin Jones is probably my all-time, historic favorite.
I hired Winard Harper recently for a gig I did in New York. We have worked together for the past three summers at UMASS Amherst’s Jazz-In-July program. I like the energy and personality he brings to the music. I hear plenty of tradition in his playing (Max Roach especially), but with him, I don’t feel boxed into having to play in a certain manner, replicating a past era. At times his accompaniment surprised and prodded me; I was pushed out of my routine and forced to really improvise. I love this, and it made for an inspired performance. At the same time, he is flexible and listens. Some drummers are creative, but there is no flexibility; it’s their way or the highway, which can be a drag after a while.
There are so many functional jazz drummers, but few that are “special.” The special ones bring something extra to the music and inspire others to play at their best. They’ve got personality. There’s nothing worse than playing with a drummer who is polite and doesn’t put him/herself out there. The flipside is that some of the drummers with strong musical personalities have equally strong and abrasive personalities off-stage. I could name several drummers I have wanted to hire, but have been warned by other players to stay clear of them, because they are problematic.
Dynamics are another pet peeve. I hate having to play a whole night where I am forcing my sound in order to project. I despise the feeling of lactic acid buildup in my forearms, stemming from fighting a drummer, that prevents me from playing anything beyond eighth notes. Obviously, it is desirable to achieve balance between being forceful and gently expressive, so I try to work with drummers with a sufficiently wide range of dynamic control.