Capable of capturing the intimate subtleties of a combo or packing the walloping punch of a full big band, this lean and mean 10-piece band, performs original works and fresh, swinging arrangements which highlight the improvisational capabilities of the group’s members.
The name “Yankee Gumbo” is reflective of the ensemble’s diverse makeup, northeastern American locale, and MacDonald’s penchant for cross-pollinating styles within his music. Just as gumbo mixes culinary practices and ingredients from different countries, the ensemble emulsifies musicians of different ages, races/ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, marital status, incomes, educations, religious beliefs, geographic locations, and parental status to form a cohesive, exquisite entity.
Yankee Gumbo’s instrumentation consists of two trumpets, one trombone, one French horn, three saxophones (alto, tenor and baritone), piano, bass and drums. The inclusion of French horn adds an unexpected, elegant hue to group, bridging the brass and woodwinds and widening orchestration possibilities. Unlike MacDonald’s 17-piece jazz orchestra, he opted to exclude woodwind doubles, for practicality (finding substitute players, when necessitated) and simplicity’s sake.
“Open Borders,” the ensemble’s first album, was released in November, 2017. The following musicians were selected to carry out MacDonald’s musical vision: Kris Allen (alto sax), Wayne Escoffery (tenor sax), Lauren Sevian (bari sax), Jeffrey Holmes (trumpet), Josh Evans (trumpet), Alex Gertner (French horn), Sara Jacovino (trombone), Henry Lugo (string bass), and Ben Bilello (drums). Vocalist Atla DeChamplain and percussionist Ricardo Monzon join the ensemble for one track respectively. In addition to providing all the arrangements, Earl MacDonald performs throughout on piano or Rhodes electric piano.
For this band, MacDonald considers his compositional approach to be a natural extension and offshoot from work by iconic preceding artists such as Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Bill Holman, Slide Hampton, Jim McNeely, Gerry Mulligan, and Rob McConnell. Despite his foundational grounding in the past, MacDonald’s own compositional voice is unmistakable. Owen McNally of the Hartford Courant described the group as “fresh-sounding” and “generating contemporary band music that lives in the present, independent, cliché-free and untethered to conventional big band nostalgia.” (01/20/2011)
The band’s origins date back to 2009, when MacDonald approached the Hartford Jazz Society, proposing the formation of an ensemble to assist in accomplishing their aims and purposes. It was hoped that an active performing ensemble would help cultivate an image of organizational vibrancy for the jazz society. The group was given the name, “the Hartford Jazz Society’s New Directions Ensemble.” Over five thousand listeners witnessed their debut performance in Hartford’s Bushnell Park, on August 2nd, 2010. Nightclub performances ensued, and the readers of the Hartford Advocate selected the New Directions Ensemble as Hartford’s Best Jazz Group in the 2011 Grand Band Slam readers’ poll. The HJS association was mutually beneficial for a three-year period, until setbacks occurred in the form of unsuccessful grant writing and a scandalous robbery from within their board of directors. Although no disaffiliation was discussed, MacDonald elected to work independently of the organization, writing his own grants and planning the group’s next initiatives. Future collaborations with the Hartford Jazz Society have not been discussed, but they would potentially be plausible and welcomed.
- 08/02/2010 – Debut performance. Monday Night Jazz in Hartford’s Bushnell Park.
- 08/09/2010 – Black-eyed Sally’s. Hartford, CT
- 01/29/2011 – Szechuan Tokyo. West Hartford, CT
- 04/07/2011 – Trinity College. Hartford, CT
- 05/04/2011 – Glastonbury High School (performance & master class). Glastonbury, CT
- 06/04/2011 – HJS Fund Raiser. Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Hartford, CT
- 08/01/2011 – Monday Night Jazz. Bushnell Park. Hartford, CT
- 08/15/2011 – Black-eyed Sally’s. Hartford, CT
- 01/26/2012 – University of Connecticut. Storrs, CT. Collaboration with visual artists, Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff: “On the Surface of the Water”
- 02/13/2012 – Tea Lounge. Brooklyn, NY [Size Matters Series]
- 08/13/2012 – Monday Night Jazz. Bushnell Park. Hartford, CT
- 01/29/2013 – University of Massachusetts, Amherst
- 04/26/2013 – Polish National Home, Hartford, CT
Musicians who have played within the ensemble since its inception:
(Emboldened names appear on MacDonald’s “Open Borders” album.)
- alto sax: Kris Allen
- tenor sax: Jovan Alexandre, Wayne Escoffery, Frank Kozyra, Mark Small
- bari sax: Lummie Spann, Lauren Sevian
- lead trumpet: Larry Gareau, Frank Greene, Jeff Holmes, Tony Kadleck, Nick Marchione, David Stangarone
- trumpet soloist: Josh Evans, Greg Hopkins, Doug Olsen
- French Horn: Shelagh Abate, John Clark, Alex Gertner, Angela Haynes, Bob Hoyle, Tim Riley
- trombone: Allie Bosso, James Burton III, Sara Jacovino
- piano: Earl MacDonald
- string bass: Gregg August, Alexandra Eckhardt, Henry Lugo, Dave Santoro
- drums: Jonathan Barber, Ben Bilello, Jimmy Macbride, Bill Reynolds
- Appointment In Ghana – by Jackie McLean, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- Blame It On My Youth – by Oscar Levant & Edward Heyman, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- Catch of the Day – by Jerrold Dubyk, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- Character Defect – by Earl MacDonald
- Dig In Buddy – by Tyler Hornby, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- East of the Sun – by Brooks Bowman, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- Hit the Road Jack – by Percy Mayfield, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- It’s The Final Straw – by Sara Jacovino
- Joshua – by Victor Feldman, arranged by Earl MacDonald
- Measuring Up – by Earl MacDonald
- Miles Apart – by Earl MacDonald
- Mirror of the Mind – by Earl MacDonald
- Nutty – by Thelonious Monk, arranged by Jon Shelly
- Sordid Sort of Fellow – by Earl MacDonald
- Smoke and Mirrors – by Earl MacDonald
- Woody ‘n You – by Dizzy Gillespie, arranged by Earl MacDonald
Future Initiatives and Plans:
In addition to seeking jazz festival, concert, and night club bookings, MacDonald plans to expand the ensemble’s educational outreach. Because Yankee Gumbo’s makeup reflects both the diversity and instrumentational offerings in public schools, the ensemble could potentially provide many valuable services for band programs, as part of educational visitations. Scenarios could include:
- a late afternoon master class, dinner with the students, and an evening concert at which the hosting high school band would play as “opening act”. An en masse encore could be incorporated.
- a morning or afternoon concert and presentation (explaining jazz) to the entire school population.
- performances at high school jazz festivals, with members of the ensemble serving as adjudicators.
- Selected members of Yankee Gumbo visiting high school or university ensemble rehearsals and functioning as clinicians.
For more information, contact Earl MacDonald.