Earl MacDonald: Open Borders
by George W. Harris
January 18, 2018
Pianist/arranger Earl MacDonald uses his orchestra to deliver a political message that doesn’t have to be agreed with to musically appreciate. His 9 piece team which includes Wayne Escoffery/ts mixes originals with clever choices of standards. Kris Allen’s alto floats on the lovely “Blame It On My Youth” and the horn section is frothy on “East of the Sun” along with Atla DeChamplain’s warm vocals. The rhythm team gets a Latin workout on the leader’s “Dolphy Dance” and delivers a hip stride on “Miles Apart” while the brass is elegiac on “Mirror of the Mind.” MacDonald has a bopper’s heart, and wears it well on the bluesy “Dig In Buddy” and bouncy “Sordid Sort of Fellow.” Light on its feet, the band works well in blue and red states of mind.
Open Borders brings to the fore Canadian-born pianist Earl MacDonald’s burnished tentet in a program that consists of eleven sunlit and swinging themes, five of which were composed by the leader. Besides writing, MacDonald did most of the arranging, and he excels in both arenas, as he does on piano (most notably on the standards “Blame It On My Youth” and “East of the Sun” as well as on Percy Mayfield’s R&B classic “Hit the Road Jack” and his own forward-leaning “Dolphy Dance”).
In keeping with the “open borders” motif, MacDonald writes that “the band’s ages range from twenty to sixty-two; some of us are straight, and some are gay; three women were involved; two members identify as being black; one musician is a Latino, while one more is the Jewish grandson of a Holocaust survivor . . . At the helm is a displaced Canadian, trying to find his way and make sense of things.” Several members of the group make their homes in the New York City area while the others are from the New England states. MacDonald shapes them into a snug and single-minded ensemble determined to “make sense of things.”
The album’s well-grooved opener, “Dig in Buddy,” composed by Canadian Tyler Hornby, is followed by MacDonald’s far-from-seedy “Sordid Sort of Fellow” (spotless solos courtesy of MacDonald, trumpeter Josh Evans and trombonist Sara Jacovino) and deliberative “Mirror of the Mind.” Jackie McLean’s colorful “Appointment in Ghana” showcases baritone Lauren Sevian and alto Kris Allen, MacDonald’s perceptive “Miles Apart” (ending in a mystifying fade-out) his keyboard alongside trumpeter Jeff Holmes. Tenor Wayne Escoffery weighs in with Sevian and Evans on Canadian Jerrold Dubyk’s appetizing “Catch of the Day,” while percussionist Ricardo Monzon helps stoke the rhythmic fire on “Dolphy Dance” and vocalist Atla DeChamplain is heard on the well-known finale, “East of the Sun.”
A blue-chip partnership whose dexterous soloists amplify MacDonald’s invariably sharp and engaging charts. Nothing groundbreaking here, simply well-drawn and listenable contemporary jazz of the first order.
Track Listing: Dig In Buddy; Sordid Sort of Fellow; Mirror of the Mind; Appointment in Ghana; Miles Apart; Hit the Road Jack; Smoke and Mirrors; Catch of the Day; Blame It on My Youth; Dolphy Dance; East of the Sun.
★★★★ out of five
Personnel: Earl MacDonald: leader, piano, composer, arranger; Jeffrey Holmes: trumpet; Josh Evans: trumpet; Kris Allen: alto sax; Wayne Escoffery: tenor sax; Lauren Sevian: baritone sax; Alex Gertner: French horn; Sara Jacovino: trombone; Henry Lugo: bass; Ben Bilello: drums; Ricardo Monzon: percussion (10); Atla DeChamplain: vocal (11).
Title: Open Borders | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Death Defying Records
Winnipeg Free Press
January 4, 2018
by: Keith Black
Earl MacDonald – Open Borders (Death Defying Records)
Winnipeg-born pianist/composer/educator Earl MacDonald has taken time from his position as director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut to release this new album. Many will remember Earl from his numerous gigs around Winnipeg in the ’90s.
This release demonstrates his development as a composer and leader, and the dectet here shows this to fine advantage. The title was not intended to be a political statement; rather it reflects the remarkable diversity of the 10 musicians. They represent different ages, races/ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and so on, but the blending here is a testament to the value of “open borders.”
The writing is complex and tight, with what MacDonald calls “solo enhancements” to provide pathways for improvisation. As a result, the soloists are remarkably clear and in sync with the ensemble. Tenor player Wayne Escoffery, bari player Lauren Sevian and trumpeter Jeffrey Holmes are especially powerful voices throughout the album.
The moods are varied and move from rhythmic swing to gentle melody. For example, the track Dolphy Dance imagines what Eric Dolphy might have sounded like in a current N.Y. salsa band.
It is always a pleasure to report on the growing success and development of a native son, and this album has much to recommend it to his hometown audience.
★★★★ out of five
Stream these: Dig in Buddy, Smoke and Mirrors
— Keith Black
Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, and educator Earl MacDonald, a native of Winnipeg, Canada, leads a 10-piece ensemble on his new album Open Borders. Besides original material, his fourth outing as a leader also includes carefully selected tunes authored by both acclaimed and not so known musicians, as well as celebrated jazz standards.
“Dig In Buddy”, composed by Alberta’s drummer Tyler Hornby, bursts with a compelling arrangement sparkled by fantastic rhythmic accentuations and magnifying unisons, at the same time that favors individual extemporizations selected from the bountiful horn section. Initially, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and trombonist Sara Jacovino collide for a brief period, but then split, alternating every two, and then four, bars of improvised statements. Josh Evans made a pompous entrance evoking a noticeable phrase from Freddie Hubbard on Art Blakey’s version of “Moanin”, and there was still space for drummer Bern Bilello appear, well backed by opportune horn fills.
“Sordid Sort of Fellow” offers up the swinging verve from the 60s as it carries much of that bop feel in his arms. Again, Evans quotes recognizable phrases from other times while improvising with Hubbard-esque lucidity. MacDonald also stands out with a two-hand demonstration on how to groove within the harmony.
Even thickened with powerful layers of sound, Jackie McLean’s “Appointment in Ghana” evinces a legitimate lightness that is put to the test during Lauren Sevian’s opulent baritone solo. She is momentarily left alone with the drums for a further kicking effect.
While “Miles Apart” expresses the cool-toned qualities of a ballad that finishes with a perhaps too abrupt fade out, both “Smoke and Mirrors” and Jerrold Dubyk’s “Catch of the Day” are dazzling, shapeshifting pieces pushed forward by the highly coordinated actions of the band. However, if the former displays multiple transitions in rhythm (funky beats with bass grooves, a vainglorious march brought up by snare eruptions, a rock flow adorned with horn unisons and counterpoint, and a final trumpet-piano poem in the form of gentle prayer), the latter assumes a metamorphic, daring posture when alternating time signatures.
After casting a strong Latin spell with the percussive “Dolphy Dance”, which starts as a ternary fantasia but veers into a 4/4 salsa big band, the album closes with the popular “East of the Sun”, completely transformed by the unique vocal touch of guest singer Atla DeChamplain and piqued by Kris Allen’s striking solo on top of punchy chords emanated from the Fender Rhodes.
Diversity, dynamism, and equilibrium are fundamental aspects in Earl MacDonald’s music making. These eleven stylishly orchestrated pieces are a pure reflection of his musical capabilities.
01 – Dig In Buddy ► 07 – Smoke and Mirrors ► 08 – Catch of the Day
Earl MacDonald: Open Borders
Politicians might do well to take a few pointers from pianist-arranger Earl MacDonald. As this fine album attests to, it’s far better to build bridges than walls, and far more productive to open borders and dialogue than close hearts, minds, and doors.
While MacDonald didn’t initially set out to make a political statement with this recording, both the events of the day and the make-up of the marvelously tight dectet that brings this music to life got him thinking about all the good that comes of a wholehearted embrace of diversity. The differences that theoretically separate these ten musicians—age, faith, race, sex, and heritage—don’t serve as impediments to communication or act as a threat to anybody’s greater being. In fact, quite the opposite comes of this medium-scale gathering. This music, powered by each player’s distinctive traits and bound by MacDonald’s writing, shines with the light of diversity.
MacDonald’s reduction/adaptation of his big band arrangement on Canadian drummer Tyler Hornby‘s “Dig In Buddy” opens the album and serves as the perfect introduction to his writing and the men and women behind this music. It’s a swinging chart that takes a modern slant on a Jazz Messengers sound. More than half the personnel is showcased through mini-solo slots, and two voices of note—alto saxophonist Kris Allen and trumpeter Josh Evans—stand in the spotlight. It need be noted, however, that this is not your garden variety blowing tune. Ever the thoughtful arranger, MacDonald makes sure that the band provides finely crafted riffs and guideposts—”solo enhancements,” as he prefers to call them—to keep things moving and hold interest. His own “Sordid Sort Of Fellow” follows and, to a certain extent, follows suit. It’s a twist on “Rhythm” changes that opens with a snazzy, brush-driven statement and features a show-stealing MacDonald solo. The leader’s gifts with the pen are apparent on both of those tracks, as the sound of ten can balloon to the sonic proportions of twenty or fold inward to sound like a small combo.
While those first two numbers speak to an upbeat swing aesthetic, what follows offers a wider range of expressions. “Mirror Of The Mind,” taking cues from Aaron Copland’s grand aural landscapes, opens on a gorgeous chorale-like portrait before riding atop a steady eighth chassis; “Miles Apart” has a bluer-than-blue identity, slowly swinging and singing; the programmatic “Smoke And Mirrors,” speaking to a fictitious leader’s dirty secret and a related rise and fall in fortunes, marries noir-ish thoughts and classical notions before sharply veering into funk territory and moving into quieter questioning realms; and “Dolphy Dance” is an imagining of the great Eric Dolphy‘s horn voice taking root in the New York salsa scene.
As far as soloists go, MacDonald, Evans, Allen, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, and baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian prove to be the standouts. But everybody makes their mark at one time or another. Alex Gertner’s French horn is central to the success of “Smoke And Mirrors,” drummer Ben Bilello is a force of controlled dynamism, trombonist Sara Jacovino makes her personality felt in a variety of situations, trumpeter Jeff Holmes accentuates the mood on “Miles Apart,” and bassist Henry Lugo is the glue that holds things together. Add to the list percussionist Ricardo Monzon, who drops by to add a touch of spice to “Dolphy Dance,” and guest vocalist Atla DeChamplain, who joins the band for an “East Of The Sun” sendoff. The message here is clear: forget homogeneity and xenophobia. Diversity is the ultimate tool for unification.
Track Listing: Dig In Buddy; Sordid Sort Of Fellow; Mirror Mind; Appointment In Ghana; Miles Apart; Hit The Road Jack; Smoke And Mirrors; Catch Of The Day; Blame It On My Youth; Dolphy Dance; East Of The Sun.
Personnel: Earl MacDonald: piano; Kris Allen: alto saxophone; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Lauren Sevian: baritone saxophone; Jeffrey Holmes: trumpet; Josh Evans: trumpet; Alex Gertner: French horn; Sara Jacovino: trombone; Ben Bilello: drums; Henry Lugo: bass; Atla DeChamplain: vocals (11); Ricardo Monzon: percussion (10).
Volume 40/Number 357
October 24, 2017
CHRIS SPECTOR, Editor and Publisher
Copyright 2017 Midwest Record
EARL MacDONALD/Open Borders: Funky, big band sounding soul jazz that has music so bright it comes in colors. A wild set that doesn’t believe in boundaries even if it does believe in structure. This set gives you a feeling of what Stan Kenton would be doing if he was still doing it his way today, with the help of Holman and those cats, of course. Tasty stuff for the real jazzbo, this is inspired playing that really delivers the goods well. Hot stuff throughout.