Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Looking Forward, Looking Back

"Looking Forward, Looking Back" seemed like the perfect title for New Years' Eve, the day we look ahead to the New Year, while also spending some time in reflection.  This is the fifth and final post in my mini-series providing insight into my graphic, aleatoric compositions.

This piece is designed to tell a story about a crucial, life-changing decision.  The problem is, the decision is being made by someone other than yourself.  Two possible scenarios are:

  1. a wedding proposal where she says, "Give me a day or two and I'll get back to you."
  2. a job interview
Here's the score (click on it to enlarge it to full size):

And here is a live performance of it, featuring my band,  C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop).  Note that all the trumpet parts are played by saxophone.  You might enjoy following along with the score while simultaneously watching the performance.

Happy New Year!

Monday, December 30, 2013

Jazz Meets Baseball

"Stealing Third" is a musical game inspired by the secret, encoded signals of a third base coach, who tells base runners to either "stay put" or "steal to third."

The game/piece requires a conductor and works well with a small group of musicians (probably no more than six players).  The conductor builds a piece using the signals below, in any order.  The various elements can and should be used more than once.

  • A clenched fist is used to get the attention of the players before giving an instruction.  The clenched fist is followed by...
    • a conducted "downbeat" indicating a contrast in texture during collective, group improvisation. (loud becomes soft, dense becomes sparse, etc.)
    • holding up 1, 2, 3 or 4 fingers and then pointing at specific players to cue an upcoming solo, duo, trio or quartet.  The players continue with the previous texture until a downbeat has been given.
    • a tug on the ear, which cues "cartoon sounds" (also known as, extended instrumental techniques). These could include playing a mouthpiece alone, tapping keys, closing the piano lid, blowing air through a horn, removing tubing from a brass instrument, etc.)  Upon the downbeat, the conductor quickly points at individuals who reveal their predetermined, unorthodox sounds.  The players must be "on their toes" and ready to react should they be pointed to next.  
    • touching his nose, signaling it is time to end the piece.  The players don't have to stop abruptly; rather, they end the piece organically.

[Click on the score to enlarge it to full size.]

Let's play ball!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

In Response To My Critics

I knew the gamble I would be taking by including some "free improvisation" on my new album. I anticipated that these tracks might not be as favorably received, but I wanted the CD to accurately represent the band's repertoire and it's original "raison d’être."  Initially this band ONLY played "far out", experimental pieces, which makes it somewhat ironic (albeit expected) that critics are saying pieces like Where Thinking Leaves Off "seem out of place among more engaging tunes."  Another reviewer offhandedly insulted me by saying Where Thinking Leaves Off was "appropriately titled" --- as if to infer that no thought went into the composition or performance.

Where Thinking Leaves Off was written after reading Søren Kierkegaard's "Fear and Trembling", and depicts the story of Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, told in the biblical book of Genesis (chapters 17:1 - 18:15, 21:1 - 7, 22:1 -18).   The title comes from a Kierkegaard quote, "faith begins where thinking leaves off."  Emotionally potent content saturates every scene, spanning Isaac's miraculous birth to geriatric parents, to Abraham nearly sacrificing his son on an alter. The contrasts, tensions and emotions make for a fertile improvisational playground.

Be assured, the hours of preparation that go into my graphic scores overshadow the effort it takes to write a brief album synopsis without reading the press release, liner notes, band description and other written materials prepared to coincide with the album's release.  This arrogant, misinformed trend in album criticism is disappointing and serious cause for concern.

That said, I had hoped each piece could stand on its own artistically, without an explanation. Maybe I was wrong.  Maybe I was expecting too much of my listeners; but then again, it's not as if I was inventing and introducing the free jazz idiom.  It's been around for 50 years, but appears to be just as polarizing now as at it's inception.

In no way does the negative response of a few critics make me think my explorations into graphic composition are artistically weak, unsound or invalid.  In fact, I'm rather proud of this work.

An audio player and the score for "Where Thinking Leaves Off" appear below.  See if you can follow along with the score.  (Saxophone replaces all the indicated trumpet parts.)

Dave Douglas, the trumpet playing composer, introduced me to the concept of graphic scores and aleatoric composition back in 2001 while I was a participant at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. I've done some further study since then, investigating the work of Earle Brown and R. Murray Schafer, among others, who utilized unconventional notation practices.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Gush - an avant-garde musical experiment

Today I am sharing my piece, "Gush" to further illustrate the concept of guided free improvisation.  Gush depicts the affects of adding various stimuli to a water-based ecosystem.  For it's debut performance it was scored for 3 saxes, 4 brass and rhythm section.  The entrance and exit of each instrument is variable and cued by the conductor or a designated member within the ensemble.

Although "Gush" was later recorded by my quartet, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, it didn't make it onto my "Mirror of the Mind" CD.  I decided to release a balanced cross-selection of our repertoire rather than focusing solely on avant-garde experiments (or arranged pop tunes or contemporary jazz compositions).

The following video was created by Ted Efremoff and Deborah Dancy, as part of a collaborative, cross-disciplinary suite entitled "Above the Surface of the Water", for I which composed the music.

Can you hear the school of minnows frolicking joyfully in the water?  How about the fisherman's hook interacting with the salmon?  The motor boat stirring things up?  The affect of pollutants on the fish and plant life?

Friday, December 27, 2013

Musical Masturbation

I have heard it said that free jazz is a lot like masturbation; it is self indulgent and should be done in private.  A few years ago I may have subscribed to this viewpoint, but I'm becoming more open minded.  I now see free improvisation as a legitimate and effective form of self expression.  But like any art form, it takes time to develop a level of proficiency (which facilitates the communication of plausible musical statements).

As a creative musician looking to stretch my imagination and further develop the intuitive side of my musicianship, I have found "playing free" to be beneficial.  I think it has made me a better composer and improviser in tonal settings.

The author of the Wikipedia article on Free Improvisation defines it as "improvised music without any rules beyond the logic or inclination of the musician(s) involved."  My compositional forays into free jazz tend to have some rules and guidelines, so as to steer the improvisors.

Here is a video of my band, the Creative Opportunity Workshop, playing a free piece I entitled, "Quaternary Triangulation":

The score is a set of instructions which looks like this:  (If you click on the image, it will expand to full size.)

The result is four, short, contrasting trios.  In the video, the suite unfolded as follows:
Mvt. #1:  cello (leader), accompanied by piano and percussion
Mvt. #2: piano (leader), accompanied by percussion and sax
Mvt. #3: percussion (leader), accompanied by sax and cello
Mvt. #4: sax (leader), accompanied by piano and cello

As an educator, I have found this exercise to be helpful in getting students to consider and execute elements of contrast: fast/slow, high/low registers, long/short articulations, dense/sparse, loud/soft, etc.  It doesn't hurt for professionals to be reminded of these devices either.

In an earlier blog post I touched on my experiences using "guided free improvisation" in educational settings.  I have provided a link, so I won't expound here, although I see tremendous untapped potential here.

Over the next few days I will share several more of my free compositions, so as to provide some insight into a style which is perhaps too easily dismissed by the uninitiated.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Miles Apart

Despite the joyousness of the season, there is always some sadness when we can't be reunited with ALL of our family members over the holidays. This song "Miles Apart" was written while thinking of the distance which separates my parents and my sister's family from my own. We live on opposite coasts.

The above video footage comes from my CD release concert which took place on Oct. 11th, 2013 at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT. The members of the band are Kris Allen - sax, Christopher Hoffman - cello, Rogerio Boccato - percussion, and me.

I was somewhat miffed when a recent reviewer wrote, "The genesis of “Miles Apart” is murky, and whether it is meant to convey distance, or an allusion to Miles Davis, no amount of listening will sort out." A quick reading of my online liner notes would give the answer and much more.  Detailed song descriptions for all the pieces on my latest CD appear on my website.  Perhaps in our postmodernist world research is now passé.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

CD Release Concert Footage

The CD release concert for my "Mirror of the Mind" recording took place back in October at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, CT.  Two of my students, Colin Walters and Mike O'Callaghan filmed it for me, but I haven't had time until recently to edit the video and put it into usable, bite-sized chunks.

Here is my song, "Bottom Feeders", featuring Kris Allen (alto sax), Christopher Hoffman (cello) and Rogerio Boccato (percussion).

If you're wondering about the title, I provided a full explanation on my website, at the following link:  http://www.earlmacdonald.com/mirror-of-the-mind/about-the-music.html

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Developing Musical Ideas

The commute to New York City is without question the least glorious aspect of my participation in the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop.  I drive for two hours and then take the train for an additional two hours.  EACH WAY.  The up side is that it gives me some uninterrupted time to think, problem solve, or listen to some new music.

Train to New York CityOn my way to the last meeting I found myself obsessing about how I might lengthen or add to my piece.  Currently, it's duration is just under 5 minutes, which seems a bit short.  It dawned on me that I haven't consciously utilized any of the conventional development techniques used in music composition.  I have been so focused on adhering to rhythmic clave, and staying within the parameters and spirit of salsa, that I somehow overlooked the obvious.

I often tell my arranging students that "everything we write is viable for development".  It's funny how when we are personally in the act of creating, we sometimes don't see the obvious, or forget basic principals, because our focus is too narrow.

So... I've decided to take a step back.  My plan is to distance myself from the piece for a couple of weeks, and then dive in again, with the understanding that everything is "up for grabs".  Any and all aspects of the piece are subject to development, including:
  • all salsa elements: rhythms, montunos, bass tumbaos, brass hits, instrumentation, repeated figures, form, etc.  They can all be developed, and they don't have to sit in the expected/standard 4-bar format.
  • melodies (backwards, upside down, etc.)
  • motifs
  • the harmonic progressions (move, transpose, modulate, elongate, truncate, etc.)
  • dynamics
  • voicings
  • form
  • counterpoint
[I included this reading session recording in my last post, but here it is again for reference:]

This may sound strange, but when writing this piece, I intentionally tried NOT to incorporate a clearly distinguishable melody.  I wanted to see if rhythm alone could carry the piece.  In lieu of a "melody" I wanted to integrate some weird, chromatic "Eric Dolphy-esque" lines.  Somehow this notion may have "obscured my vision" and hindered my process.  By accepting that these weird lines ARE in fact a melody or THE melody, I can proceed to take these lines, or portions of them, and work with them using conventional techniques of good composition and arranging.  This material could be used elsewhere in the piece!

writing music
By trying (so hard) not to break any of the rules of Salsa, I may have inadvertently handcuffed my creativity.  The genre is now established.  The parameters are in place.  Now it's time to think outside of those parameters and feel free to break some rules.  I will allow myself to take the music to another place.

So... that's what I came up with during the commute.  At the actual workshop, I also got some valuable tips from my colleagues.  Their general consensus was that my piece was too dense --- both in orchestration and with too much going on at once, thereby overwhelming the listener.  Overwritten brass and backgrounds which obscure and detract from the soloist are other valued criticisms I received and plan to address.

Clearly I've got my work cut out for me.  But in the meanwhile, I have two other new pieces on the go.  I'll fill you in about those later.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Composers' Workshop

I have rejoined the BMI Jazz Composers' Workshop while I am on sabbatical from university teaching.  I participated twice before, in 2003 and 2007.  Traveling to New York City regularly (almost weekly) from Storrs, CT is a considerable commitment because I basically lose a full day of productivity.  I rationalize that it will be worthwhile for the following reasons:
  • benefiting from the feedback of a peer group, as well as Jim McNeely and Mike Holober, the workshop directors.
  • having regular deadlines, thereby forcing me to complete plenty of new music
  • trying some new techniques, and gathering ideas from other composers in an effort to escape my compositional ruts/routines
  • networking --- making some new friends and professional contacts
  • hearing my new pieces and musical experiments played by a band of skilled, professional NYC musicians.
  • setting myself on a forward/creative trajectory which will continue well beyond my sabbatical.
Earlier this week I met all the workshop participants at an informational session with Jim McNeely and Mike Holober.  The participants are an impressive bunch, with professional and academic credentials galore.  After reviewing the booklet of guidelines, some compositional discussions ensued, which have already got my wheels turning.

It was made clear that merely arranging and developing our small group tunes was discouraged. Although this is a valid and often used technique, McNeely and Holober encouraged us to stretch and experiment.  We are to experience starting from nothing and building from the ground up --- trying techniques outside our usual 'bag of tricks'.  Exclusive use of repeating, cyclical forms, such as experienced in 90% of jazz repertoire, was also discouraged.  To a degree, this will be a stretch for me; but I welcome the challenge.

If all goes well, this should be a transformative musical year.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Heintzman Pianos

I adore my Heintzman upright piano.  It's solidly built, speaks equally in all registers, sounds beautiful, and feels great to play.  By looking up the serial number (41146), I learned it was constructed in 1912 in Toronto, Canada.

Legend has it that Theodor August Heintzman worked side-by-side with Henry E. Steinway in a Berlin piano factory, prior to their immigrating together to North America.  The superior craftsmanship between the two piano brands is certainly comparable.

I bought mine in 1992 from Bill Weiss, who was Winnipeg's finest piano technician.  He was in his 80s at the time and has long since passed.  Mr. Weiss rebuilt the instrument, replacing the hammers and bass strings.

My piano tuner and longtime family friend, Garry Varty found it for me.  Mr. Varty was born blind and enjoyed the irony in saying he "looked long and hard" for an instrument of this quality, specifically for me.

With great difficulty (a long story), I shipped it to Connecticut in 2003 after getting married and buying a home.

Earlier this month I spent a week in Kincardine, Ontario performing and teaching at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival.  I was overjoyed when I lifted the piano lid at the performance venue and saw that I would be playing a Heintzman all week.  I was a bit perplexed, because it looked new, and I was under the impression Heintzman pianos were out of production for some time.  I have since learned that the Heintzman name was purchased by a Chinese manufacturer, who claims to build them according to the originals specifications.


The new Heintzman was a huge disappointment.  They may have replicated the original dimensions, but something is clearly lacking --- "T.L.C." and old-school craftsmanship which reflects pride in one's work.  The instrument's quality was on par with Young Chang pianos, which deflate my sails every time I am forced to play one.  Notes stuck.  The upper register was weak, thin and metallic sounding.  It didn't hold it's tune. As the week progressed, the piano became more and more unravelled.  It was a despicable instrument and I hope to never encounter one again.

At times I envy horn players (did I really just say that?!!).  It must be nice to bring one's own, maintained, reliable, predictable instrument to a gig.  Pianists on the other hand are at the mercy of the instrument they are dealt.

I pride myself in getting a decent sound out of even the poorest of pianos, but some nights it is harder than others to overcome, compensate for, and not allow myself to become entirely distracted by poor workmanship or lack of proper maintenance.

They don't make 'em like they used to.


Monday, August 12, 2013

Jazz Camp

saxophonist Ralph Bowen
An evening concert with tenor saxophonist, Ralph Bowen
Jazz Camp takes a lot out of me.  After a week of teaching during the day, performing at night, and socializing with old friends, I'm wiped.

I just returned from the Kincardine Summer Music Festival, which is organized by my friend, trombonist Jules Estrin.  The faculty was comprised entirely of friends with whom I went to McGill University in the late 1980s.  They are now all highly respected jazz educators and players in Toronto and Montreal.

Kelly Jefferson - tenor sax
Brian O'Kane - trumpet
Jules Estrin - trombone
Mike Rudd - guitar
Mike Downes - string bass
Ted Warren - drums

We performed together almost every night, including concerts accompanying Toronto singer/radio DJ Heather Bambrick and saxophonist, Ralph Bowen.

Ralph was one of my jazz professors at Rutgers and he played on both my "Schroeder's Tantrum" and "Re:Visions" CDs.  It was great to see (and hear!) him.  What an inspiring player!

I also really enjoyed the teaching aspect of the KSMF.  The students in my ensemble were bright and inquisitive.  They eagerly took notes and asked plenty of thoughtful questions.  I probably gave them a full year's worth of practice material.
A student ensemble performance at the Kincardine Summer Music Festival's Jazz Camp
An outdoor student performance at the KSMF
On Friday I played an afternoon concert with the JazzFM Youth Big Band, comprised of Toronto's top high school jazz students.  These kids can really play!  Drummer Ted Warren and saxophonist Kelly Jefferson were also featured guests.

Earl MacDonald and Ted Warren performing with the JazzFM Big Band
Performing with the JazzFM Youth Big Band
I have taught at many jazz camps over the years but this one is by far my favorite.  I highly recommend it to aspiring young jazz players.  The location is gorgeous, the price isn't exorbitant, the faculty are superb, and the evening concerts rival what you would hear in a Toronto or New York jazz club.  For info about next year's camp, visit the Kincardine Summer Music Festival's web page: http://www.ksmf.ca.  I hope to see you there next summer! 

Ralph Bowen and Earl MacDonald
enjoying the view at Lake Huron

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Bidwell Tavern

The Bidwell Tavern
The Bidwell Tavern in Coventry, CT is by far my favorite local watering hole and wing joint.  Their Buffalo chicken wings are second to none, and the atmosphere is cozy and relaxed, with a historic feel to it. Picture an old wood stove, brick walls, exposed, unfinished beams, planked floors, dimmed lights, etc.

Before we had kids, my wife and I probably visited "the Bidwell" at least once per week for beer, wings and people watching.  We made a fun game of looking around the room and guessing how the various customers made their living.

The Bidwell Tavern's chicken wings are second to none!
The Bidwell's chicken wings are even better
than the Anchor's in Buffalo, NY!
One memorable evening there was a noticeably wide array of people gathered at the bar, representing many different walks of life --- bikers, bagpipers, cross-dressers, professors (in tweed jackets with patched elbows) and even someone wearing a large, red and white striped Dr. Suess hat adorned with buttons.  This visit inspired the writing of "The Bidwell Cronies", a quirky little piece that functions as a theme song and set ender in concerts for C.O.W. (the Creative Opportunity Workshop), and to a lesser degree, my sextet.

Here is a newly created video for your listening & viewing pleasure:

"The Bidwell Cronies" will appear on my forthcoming CD, "Mirror of the Mind".  Until July 1st, I am pre-selling copies through Kickstarter.  As of today, 36 backers have pledged $1281 towards my $1500 minimum goal, through advanced purchases of the recording and other incentives (commissions, lessons, concert tickets, etc.)   This equates to 85%!  

I should clarify that $1500 is the bare minimum I need to manufacture and release the disc.  All pledged funds above and beyond my goal will be used to promote the recording.  Copies will be mailed to reviewers and radio stations, and hopefully, ads will also be purchased in magazines, in an effort to expand my audience.

Please visit the following link and pre-order your copy today.  Most of the itemized rewards will be issued before the Oct. 1 release date of "Mirror of the Mind".

Thanks for your support, and maybe I'll see you at the Bidwell Tavern.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Herbie Hancock transcription - Three Bags Full

As I mentioned in my last post, one of my summer goals is to transcribe all of Herbie Hancock's solos from his "Takin' Off" record, from 1962.  For years I've had a hang-up about studying Herbie's playing in depth.  I've felt intimidated and ill-equipped for the task.  Anyways, it's time to overcome these feelings of inadequacy.  By starting with Herbie's first solo album, maybe I can work my way up to being able to transcribe, play, comprehend, and incorporate material from his later solos.

I started with track 2, "Three Bags Full".  Now that I have it written down, I'm practicing learning to play small sections along with the recording at a reduced speed.  Learning it slow actually makes it harder to perfectly replicate his "feel".  I'm using the Amazing Slow Downer software program, which I highly recommend.  I transcribed the solo without it at first, and then checked my work at a slower speed and couldn't believe how many details and notes I missed.

You'll notice that I didn't write many of the left hand chord voicings, but used simple rhythmic notation instead.  That's because he's playing mostly stock rootless voicings that all jazz piano students learn at some point.  Scribbling down these notes seemed like a waste of time for my purposes.

I added some analysis, but I'm still analyzing as I go.  I hope to really "get inside his head" over the next few months.

If you would like to listen along as you glance through the solo, here's a YouTube link where someone uploaded it: http://youtu.be/nzkd-N6UrYE
Herbie's solo starts at 3:05.

Herbie Hancock - Three Bags Full solo transcription

Herbie Hancock - Three Bags Full solo transcription

Herbie Hancock - Three Bags Full solo transcription

Herbie Hancock - Three Bags Full solo transcription

Herbie Hancock - Three Bags Full solo transcription

Now, onto "Empty Pockets".

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Rocky Balboa of Jazz Pianists

I'm back to practicing the piano.

I feel a bit like Rocky in training, preparing to make a come back.  I haven't missed a day this week, but I'll admit it hasn't been easy.

I decided to narrow my focus to two things:
  1. Practicing the twelve "super bop" lines given to me by Charlie Banacos a few years ago.
  2. Transcribing Herbie Hancock's "Takin' Off" record.   
The Banacos lines are very chromatic and full of twists and turns.  Charlie referred to them as being "snake-y".  They make for great chop builders.  I plan to stick with one line for a couple of weeks, until I can play it at a good clip, "double fisted" (in two hands), in all keys.  For these I have alloted a 1/2 hour daily.  I set the timer on my phone and commit myself not to leave the piano bench until I hear the buzzer sound.  This has been a far greater challenge than I imagined, but I'm sticking with it, in hopes that it will get easier.

Transcribing has been going relatively well.  I've started using the Amazing Slow Downer software program, and love it!  I'm surprised at how many details I missed in my first run-through "at tempo".  I began with track 2, "Three Bags Full".  I have already completed the right hand, and am moving onto the left hand comping. I will post these solos here, along with some analysis. I'm hoping to incorporate some Herbie-isms into my playing over the next few months. 

Here's the solo, starting at 3:05, after Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon.

For the first time in a long time, I'm not practicing in preparation for a gig or recording.  I'm back to just practicing to "sharpen my axe" and elevate my skills.  It feels great.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

“Meadowlark”, a collaborative UConn School of Fine Arts presentation

For about a year I have been working on my third collaboration with visual artists, Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff.  "Meadowlark", as we titled it, is a lighthearted celebration of color, seasonal migration and the musical whistles of eastern songbirds.  For this project we added Bart Roccoberton's puppetry as a third artistic dimension.  Although he was involved in discussions and brainstorming at the onset, Bart's contribution was kept a mystery until the day of the presentation.

My music was recorded by my COW ensemble (the Creative Opportunity Workshop), which features Christopher Hoffman on cello, Kris Allen on saxophones, Rogerio Boccato on percussion and me at the piano.

A preview performance of “Meadowlark” was given on Tuesday April 23rd, at 12:30 p.m. in the Nafe Katter Theater.  Colleagues, students, administrator, and members of the community attended.  

I ran a video camera from the back of the room to capture the presentation, complete with the (newly added) puppets.  I loved how the puppet troupe heightened the sense of  movement, buoyancy and vitality.  Here is the video:

It is marvelous (and fun!) to have such immensely talented colleagues from diverse disciplines with whom to join forces!

We plan to show all three of our collaborative pieces in the Fall, projected onto the outside wall of the UConn Art/Music building facing the new town center.  We also plan to release a DVD sometime in the near future.  We will keep you posted.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hit The Road Jack - Performed by the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble

My 10tet performed at the Polish National Home in Hartford, Connecticut on April 26th, 2013.  That evening, I was joined on stage by Kris Allen - alto sax, Frank Kozyra - tenor sax, Lauren Sevian - bari sax, Tony Kadleck - trumpet, Greg Hopkins - trumpet, Shelagh Abate - French horn, Sara Jacovino - trombone, Henry Lugo - string bass, and Ben Bilello - drum set.  It was a great night!

We opened the concert with my arrangement of "Hit The Road Jack", which I have tweaked since it's debut with the Westchester Jazz Orchestra.  Here it is:

For more information about the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble, visit:  http://www.earlmacdonald.com/new-directions-ensemble.html

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Remembering Maynard Ferguson

I always think of Maynard Ferguson on May 4th.  This would have been his 85th birthday.  I'll be forever grateful for the opportunity I had to tour in his Big Bop Nouveau band (from 1998 - 2000).

Earl MacDonald accompanying Maynard Ferguson at the Ottawa Jazz FestivalI enjoyed playing for him once more in the alumni band formed for his 75th birthday, at Ryles jazz club. I admit that I "teared up" while playing his walk-on theme, "Blue Birdland" again.

He was perhaps the most gracious, humorous and positive person I have ever known.  Maynard's passing was very hard on me and I know I'm not alone in saying I miss him.

I chuckle when remembering a group of us buying him a pair of shoes for his birthday.  When the salesman wasn't looking, we switched one of the two shoes to a 1/2 size larger as his feet weren't the same size. (Maybe that is the highly sought secret to his upper register!)  Fun little memories like this often come to my mind at the least expected moments.

Maynard Ferguson and Earl MacDonald listening to the Manchester High School Jazz Band.  (circa 1999)
Most of my "road photos" were destroyed by my labrador retriever when he was a mischievous puppy.  But, here is one of Maynard and me listening to the Manchester High School band before sharing some tips. Little did I know then that I'd be settling in Connecticut, just 20 miles away from Manchester.

Happy Birthday Boss.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

New Directions Concert --- This Friday in Hartford, CT

The Hartford Jazz Society Presents Earl MacDonald and the New Directions Ensemble.  Friday, April 26th at the Polish National Home in Hartford, CT

Here is the stellar roster which will be joining me for Friday's concert and student workshop in Hartford:
alto sax: Kris Allen
tenor sax: Frank Kozyra
bari sax: Lauren Sevian
lead trumpet: Tony Kadleck
trumpet soloist: Greg Hopkins
French Horn: Shelagh Abate
trombone: Sara Jacovino
string bass: Henry Lugo
drums: Ben Bilello

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Interview with Earl MacDonald by Gloria Franco of the Hartford Jazz Society

On April 26th, at 8 p.m., at the Polish National Home, 60 Charter Oak Avenue, Hartford, the New Directions Ensemble will perform under the direction of musician, arranger, composer, and educator, Earl MacDonald with the sponsorship of the Hartford Jazz Society. This Ensemble debuted in 2010 as the brainchild of Earl and co-director, Kris Allen.

GF: The Hartford Jazz Society's mission is to promote and preserve jazz performance in the Hartford Area. So, Earl, how did it come about that the Hartford Jazz Society became the sponsor for this 10-piece Jazz Big Band?

EM: To be absolutely candid, I felt the jazz society was stagnating and needed to forge into a new direction if it wanted to be effective in expanding the audience for jazz in Hartford. I thought an active performing ensemble under the banner of the Hartford Jazz Society would help to cultivate a vibrant public image for the organization. It would give the HJS a very prominent, public face. By design, the group’s mandate is to assist in accomplishing the aims and purposes of the HJS – especially with relation to education and audience development. I pitched the idea to the board of directors and they embraced it. Together I hope we can do great things for jazz and the Greater Hartford community.

GF: I believe the Society would like to foster jazz education at the High School level, as well as at the university level. Is that something you might be involved in?

EM: Absolutely! As a part of this concert at the Polish National Home, we will be giving a free workshop for high school and university students from 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. We hope to do much more of this kind of activity. Last year we gave a concert and worked with students at Glastonbury High School.

Josh Evans, trumpet soloist with the New Directions Ensemble
Josh Evans, New Directions Ensemble soloist
My plan for this ensemble has many layers. Phase one was to get music written and get the band up and running. Now that this has been accomplished, I plan to shift my focus to outreach and educational activities where we can expose students and younger audiences to our music. The third phase is to get the band properly recorded, so that we can expand our reach, as well as having proper examples to submit for grant proposals that would assist in accomplishing and fully realizing our educational, compositional and performance goals.

GF: As an educator (Earl is Director of Jazz Studies at UConn) you have said that you hope to inspire students to "reach their highest potential", rather than just passing knowledge on to them. I have found that this way of teaching often opens up a whole new world to students and fosters curiosity. Was there a mentor or someone in your past that inspired you? I ask because you seem to always be striving and constantly educating yourself.

EM: I’ve had many great teachers over the years --- Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch, Jim McNeely, Michael Abene, Michael Mossman etc. Each of them had something special and unique to share. I choose role models who are successful, evolving artists and people, who typically aren’t content with the status quo. In this way, trumpeter Dave Douglas stands out as someone who has inspired and influenced my thinking. I like that he has so many, varied ensembles functioning as his laboratories for experimentation and self expression.

GF: In 2006 you studied improvisation with Charlie Banacos. I've read that he teaches an ear training method. I've also read that most other countries use an ear training method, much more so than in the US. Would you agree with that, and do you use Banacos's method in you teaching?

EM: Strangely, my lessons with Charlie Banacos were via correspondence. I never met him face to face. We sent a cassette tape back and forth to one another through the mail. It was a unique experience and he gave me much forthright, constructive criticism that I value and appreciate to this day. My lessons were limited to one improvisational concept, so I didn’t get to experience his whole ear training method.

I do value ear training. As an undergraduate student, I didn’t take it too seriously, but later I worked very hard to develop my ear. I made tapes for myself of different chord voicings so that I could identify specific tensions and alterations on chords. Years ago, while teaching as a sabbatical replacement in Nova Scotia, I had to teach ear training and sight singing. During that year, my skills grew immeasurably, as I wouldn’t allow myself to falter in front of a class.

GF: As Musical Director for Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau band you traveled extensively. You've also recorded and performed with your sextet, quintet, trio, and as a solo artist. Do you find that you prefer teaching over performing? You've been called "an outstanding arranger"; how does it compare to creating and performing your own original compositions?

Earl MacDonald conducting the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble
MacDonald conducting the New Directions Ensemble
EM: My professional experiences inform and equip my teaching, and my teaching informs and equips my playing. They work together. I love teaching and seeing my students growing and accomplishing. As an example, seeing Jimmy Macbride do so well --- graduating from Julliard, winning competitions and playing great --- makes me feel very proud. But, I no longer teach privately outside of UConn. There aren’t enough hours in a day for this professor, father, husband, pianist, composer and arranger. Those are a lot of hats to wear, and “dropping the ball” in any of those areas isn’t an option. Achieving the proper balance is always the challenge.

I chose a career in university teaching because it is enjoyable, gratifying work, it pays the bills and supports my family, it allows me to live a relatively comfortable lifestyle, and I can be selective about what music I play. I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but I’d be lying if I said I prefer it to performing and creating music of my own. There’s truth to the joke “What would a jazz musician do if he won the lotto? He’d work until the money ran out.” If I won the lottery, I’d be playing and composing full-time. But, that doesn’t mean I haven’t found satisfaction in the route I have chosen to take.

As for the second question, arranging and composition are the same process for me. Whether it is one of my pieces that needs to be developed, or someone else’s, it doesn’t really matter. I try to put my own stamp on it, to make it uniquely my own.

GF: Being originally from Canada, was it pursuing your Masters at Rutgers that brought you to the US?

EM: Initially, yes, but I returned to Canada after completing my Masters degree. Like most jazz musicians, there was a period when I aspired to live and work in New York City. But when I did the math, it didn’t add up. Gigs paid next to nothing and rent was through the roof. I thought I’d have better luck in Toronto. Three times I planned to move to Toronto, but other opportunities presented themselves each time. The piano teacher at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia was on sabbatical, so they hired me to fill in for him after my graduation from Rutgers. The following year I took a similar one-year position in Bowling Green, Ohio at BGSU before accepting the gig with Maynard Ferguson’s band. While touring with Maynard I saw an online ad posted for my current position at UConn, and applied. That was 14 years ago.

GF: When is your next sabbatical and what plans do you have?

EM: I will be on sabbatical in the fall and have made arrangements to study film scoring. I look forward to doing some more consistent piano practicing too.

On my last sabbatical, I joined the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop in New York City. It was a great experience where I benefitted from the feedback of my peers and the workshop leaders, Jim McNeely and Mike Holober. I am tempted to rejoin. We’ll see. I need to be careful not to overcommit myself.

GF: We are truly blessed in the Hartford area with talented and dedicated musicians. Is it because we have some good music schools in the area and a proximity to New York or might there be some other reason?

EM: I believe this results from a culmination of factors: 1) the close proximity to NYC and the affordability/desirability to live here compared to the city. 2) some excellent school band programs, 3) the affluence of West Hartford residents who’s children have access to lessons, top instruments, concerts, etc. 4) excellent musician educators who have “given back” to their communities --- Jackie McLean, Paul Brown, Dave Santoro, Steve Davis, Kris Allen, John Mastroianni, etc. 5) the Hartford Jazz Society has played a role by bringing great musicians to town to perform. Coming from Winnipeg, I didn’t experience a live concert by a truly renowned jazz musician until my early 20s. I only heard them on recordings. That’s not the case here.

GF: In an online interview, I heard you mention Dizzy Gillespie's influence in the birth of Latin Jazz. I read that he was in Cuba and was influenced by Cuban musicians. Having been there I noticed how they take their music very seriously and proudly. It was a joy to see. Anything you'd like to add on this important part of Latin Jazz history?

EM: Someday, I too would like to go to Cuba to experience the infectious joy, pride and studious nature of the musicians there.

As much as I love Latin Jazz, what I love even more is the idea of fusing jazz with different styles to create something new and keep the music interesting and vital. I see and hear this happening now with electronic dance grooves in addition to the obvious hybrids with ethnic musics. It’s very exciting and prevents the music from becoming inbred and dull.

GF: Thank you Earl for your time and look forward to seeing you on the 26th. Hear there will be some new arrangement and/or compositions the ensemble will be performing.

EM: I just finished a big band arrangement for an upcoming recording by Canadian drummer, Tyler Hornby. I will be adapting this piece for the 10-piece instrumentation. Also, since my last Hartford performance with the band, I have been fully engaged in a collaborative project with visual artist, Deborah Dancy. Much new music has resulted, some of which will be incorporated into our show. I also continue to tweak the music already in our repertoire, working out any little kinks and making slight improvements here and there. It’s an ongoing process for me.

So in wrapping up, needless to say this is a concert not to be missed. Earl MacDonald has received so many awards. So much more could be said about him and his prolific career. His website is www.earlmacdonald.com

The Newington High School Jazz Ensemble plays at 7 p.m. and the New Directions Ensemble starts at 8 p.m.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

UConn Jazz Combo Concert

The UConn Jazz Combos perform tomorrow night, April 11th.  We have moved the venue to Lu's Cafe, a much more intimate and relaxed space than the formal, 500-seat recital hall.  Lu's is located on the basement level of the Family Studies building.  The music starts at 8 p.m.  There is no cover charge, but donations are accepted towards our guest artist fund.

Here's the program:

Dolphin Dance by Herbie Hancock
Red Clay by Freddie Hubbard

Combo #3:
John Mastroianni, director
Michael O’Callaghan - trumpet
Mike Marsters – trombone
Keith Chasin – piano
Nik Hutnik – string bass
Andy O’Sullivan – drums

Prince of Darkness by Wayne Shorter
Iris by Wayne Shorterf

Combo #2:
Gregg August, director
Matt Baum – saxophone
Kim-An Do – piano
Nick Trautmann – string bass
Steven Jack – drums

Ping Pong by Wayne Shorter
Dear Sir by Wayne Shorter

Combo #1
Gregg August, director
Tom Lee – trumpet
Colin Walters – saxophone
Andrew Wysen – piano
Lexi Bodick – string bass
Mike Allegue – drums


Combo #1
Combo #2

A jam session will follow the formal program

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Concert Recording - New Directions Ensemble

My 10-piece band, the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble performed a concert at the University of Massachusetts on January 29th, 2013 and it was recorded by New England Public Radio.  I thought it was one of our better performances, so I am happy to share it with you here.

Here is the roster which performed at UMASS's Bezanson Recital Hall:

Kris Allen - alto sax
Frank Kozyra - tenor sax
Lauren Sevian - bari sax
Jeff Holmes - lead trumpet
Doug Olsen - trumpet soloist
John Clark - French horn
Sara Javovino - trombone
Earl MacDonald - piano, composer, arranger
Henry Lugo - string bass
Ben Bilello - drums

Because it is an hour and a half concert, which includes my blabbing between tunes, you might want to scroll around to find a specific piece.  Here are the starting times:

2:09 - Woody n' You
10:30 - Mirror of the Mind
15:24 - Miles Apart
21:10 - Appointment In Ghana
Lauren Sevian, bari sax
Lauren Sevian, bari sax
30:06 - Character Defect

- intermission -

40:22 - Sordid Sort of Fellow
50:05 - Hit The Road Jack
57:46 - East of the Sun
1:06:33 - Blame It On My Youth
1:13:03 - Hot 'n Ready
1:21:09 - Joshua

The next performance of the Hartford Jazz Society's New Directions Ensemble is slated for Friday, April 26th at the Polish National Home in Hartford, CT.  The Newington High School Jazz Ensemble, directed by Stephen Brookes will be the opening act.  A student workshop is scheduled from 4:30-6pm and is open to the public.  The concert begins at 7 p.m.

New charts are in the works and the band sounds better every time we play.  Purchase your tickets through the Hartford Jazz Society or at the door.  See you there!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Jazz Ensemble

During winter recess I wrote a series of articles about jazz ensemble direction and rehearsal practices.  Topics included the incorporation of sight-reading, improvisation instruction, and structured listening into rehearsals, as well as ideas pertaining to concerts and audience development.  To wrap things up, I am posting excerpts from this semester's revised course outline.  It summarizes and includes many of the ideas touched upon in my previous posts.  In addition to describing the ensemble and my instructional goals, the outline includes a breakdown of how rehearsals are structured, and a new grading plan.

UConn Jazz Ensemble

Spring Semester, 2013
    Course #: MUSI 1115, 5305, section 1 (one credit)
Rehearsal schedule:  Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3 – 5.
     Room:  von der Mehden recital hall
In keeping with the selective nature of the UConn jazz studies program and the music department as a whole, the UConn Jazz Ensemble, unlike the typical 17-piece big band seen at most academic institutions, ranges from nine to twelve instrumentalists. The comparatively small size of the ensemble makes off-campus performances practical and facilitates instruction in improvisation and musical interaction within rehearsals. Each semester the Jazz Ensemble focuses on the music of a specific composer, arranger or professional band. Past composers include Michael Abene, Phil Allen, Bill Cunliffe, Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Earl MacDonald, Rob McConnell, Jim McNeely, John Mills, Gerry Mulligan, Dave Rivello and Nathan Parker-Smith.

This semester, the ensemble will prepare the arrangements of Marty Paich, as recorded on the Art Pepper + Eleven album (1959).  Marty Paich's bio can be read at:  http://www.martypaich.com.  New music, composed and arranged Earl MacDonald will be a secondary focus. Professor MacDonald also encourages and welcomes student arrangements.

The instructor’s goals in directing this ensemble remain the same as in past semesters:
  • nuture and develop skills in jazz improvisation, musicianship and interaction. 
  • prepare the students for professional performance situations. 
  • acquaint students with the stylistic nuances of swing, through instruction, demonstration, and the study of recordings. 
  • elevate the sight-reading abilities of the individual ensemble members. 
  • expose the Music Education majors (future band teachers!) to jazz literature and rehearsal techniques. 
  • inspire the students by inviting guest artists to campus or organizing off-campus field trips to see live jazz performances. 
  • present exciting, well-programmed concerts of the highest caliber. 
  • create a “buzz” of excitement both on and off campus about the exciting, swingin’ jazz ensemble at UConn! 
  • have fun, playing great music!
On-campus performances:
02/25/13 (Monday), 7:30 pm      UConn Jazz Showcase, Spring 2013
04/08/13 (Thursday), 7:30 pm    UConn Jazz Ensemble concert

Off-campus performances:
02/14/13             Manchester High School Jazz Festival.   4 p.m. arrival.  4:50 – 5:40 performance.
04/04/13            Benrimon Gallery, New York, NY (Chelsea)
04/29/13            Black-eyed Sally’s, Hartford, CT.  7:30 p.m. (w/ Hartt and WestConn jazz ensembles)

Professor MacDonald is currently investigating additional off-campus performance opportunities.

Grading will be based upon the quality and consistency of preparation (20%), “spot tests” (10%), improvisation and listening assignments (15%), transcription projects (15%), successful concert presentations (40%), attendance, punctuality/tardiness, and conduct in rehearsals.

Three transcription projects (worth 5% each) will be assigned over the semester, consisting of two choruses (minimum) from any recording of Bb rhythm changes, F blues, Donna Lee or Airegin --- all of which are found on the selected Art Pepper album.  You will notate, learn and perform these solos by memory.  You will be taught how to extract licks from these solos to learn in 12 keys and apply to other tunes.  Additional choruses/solos will count towards extra credit. 

Should you be assigned a solo on another piece from the Art Pepper + 11 repertoire, you may substitute a transcribed solo from that piece, to help in your preparations for the concerts.

Due dates
:  Feb. 21, March 28, April 11.

Rehearsal Structure:

3:00 – 3:20:
     Group A: newbie improvisation instruction
     Group B: drum set and amplifier transfer and set-up
3:20 – 4:20:
     concert repertoire
4:20 – 4:50:

3:00 – 3:20:
     Group A: newbie improvisation instruction
     Group B: drum set and amplifier transfer and set-up
3:20 – 4:20:
     concert repertoire
4:20 – 4:35:
     testing – improvisation and jazz skills
4:35 – 4:50:
     improv/jazz skills lesson