Mirror of the Mind: About the Music

Below, Earl has written compositional insights and short descriptions of all the pieces recorded on his Mirror of the Mind CD.

Mirror of the Mind

“The song and album title, Mirror of the Mind came from William Fielder, one of my former Rutgers music professors.  Prof., as everyone called him, loved asking his students thought-provoking, challenging, philosophical questions.  For instance, whenever he had a new trumpet student, he would ask, ‘what is the trumpet?’  No answer was correct except, ‘the trumpet is the mirror of the mind.’  I suppose the same could be said for music as a whole.  Our music is a reflection of who we (the composers and musicians) are inside, as well as what we need to express.  I dedicate this piece to the memory of Prof., a very unorthodox man and teacher.”

“The opening scene of Above the Surface of the Water, my second collaboration with visual artists Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff, called for expansive, awe evoking music to compliment the projected images of mountains reflected on a lake (reminiscent of Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta).  My pre-compositional work included studying some Aaron Copeland scores as well as transcribing and analyzing Garry Dial’s beautiful composition, The Great Divide (from the album, Brassworks, arranged by Rich DeRosa).  From these studies, I learned that major 9th chords in 1st inversion would give me the effect I desired.

The title, Mirror of the Mind also summarizes my aim when setting music to the visual art of my collaborators; I wanted my music to reflect their mindsets and thoughts in order to create one, strong, unified, symbiosis.”

A Thousand Memories

“When writing for this unique quartet, I am hyper-aware of the individual roles played by each instrument.  I try never to assume ‘default mode’ (time-keeping for the drums, ‘comping’ for the piano, melody for the saxophone, a melodic harmony line for the cello, etc.) For this piece, I wanted the piano to function like a marimba, creating a textured, rhythmic background.  I wanted the melody to come from underneath, rather than being the typical, predictable top voice.

This piece is about ancestry; remembering from where we came and (hopefully) learning lessons from the past.  Sometimes it appears that the United States has made tremendous progress, overcoming its sordid history, riddled with slavery, prejudice and inequality.  Other times, one might question if any progress has been made at all.”


Beneath is about secrets.  Deep, dark, well-concealed secrets.  Secrets that are never meant to surface, because if they did, the consequences could be dire.  There is a secret embedded within this composition; the melody is based upon a 12-tone row.  The song’s funky beat could be symbolic of the excitement of living with a lie and not getting caught, while the diminished scale harmony conveys an anxious instability.  Although originally composed for C.O.W. and debuted as a part of the Beneath the Black Earth suite, this piece has been developed, reworked and transformed over recent years in arrangements for 10tet and even full jazz orchestra.  In its various manifestations the title was also modified to Smoke and Mirrors and Faith Autopsy.  Here I have returned to the original instrumentation while incorporating some, but not all aspects of the expanded versions.”


by Lennon/McCartney, arranged by Earl MacDonald & Tilden Webb

“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.”

Bidwell Cronies

“Previously recorded on my Echoes in the Night CD, this piece functions as a theme song and set-ender in concerts for C.O.W., and to a lesser degree, my sextet.  It was written after a visit to my favorite local pub, the Bidwell Tavern, in Coventry, CT.  Before having kids, my wife and I would frequent the Bidwell for beer, wings and people watching.  On the evening which inspired this quirky piece there was a noticably wide array of people gathered at the bar, representing many different walks of life — professors, bikers, bagpipers, cross-dressers, and even someone wearing a large, red and white striped Dr. Suess hat adorned with buttons.”


“Although disillusionment, discontentment and dissatisfaction may seem like negative words, without experiencing these feelings, positive changes probably wouldn’t occur in any facet of life.  Back in February of 2012, I challenged myself to write a blues a day for 30 days.  These were posted on my blog, everupandonward.blogspot.com.  Disillusionment was written on day 28 of my 30-day challenge.  At that point, I was growing tired of the activity, not to mention my own recurring compositional conventions.  In a somewhat grumpy state, I began writing this piece by listing parameters first:  E harmonic minor, 7/4, ostinato bass figure.  A Middle Eastern flavor resulted which was intensified by Rogerio & Kris’ interpretation.”

Miles Apart

My parents, my sister and her family all live on the west coast of Canada, while I reside in the Northeastern United States with my family.  Sometimes it saddens me when I think of the many miles which separate us.  It is unfortunate that my kids don’t get to play with these cousins and can’t spend much time with their grandparents.  I wrote this ballad on a cold, rainy day, with my family in mind.”

It Was Whispered

“Many of the pieces on this recording were written for cross-disciplinary, collaborative presentations with artists Deborah Dancy and Ted Efremoff.  One of my favorites is It Was Whispered, which appeared within the Beneath the Black Earth suite.  When the music is combined with the video, it gives me the chills.  It has a spooky ‘other world’ quality to it.

To a degree, the music was inspired by Ornette Coleman.  I thought a freer, somewhat less structured approach would compliment the jumbled mishmash of twigs.

Although avante-garde/free improvisation doesn’t define our sound, it is one of the many musical facets explored within the Creative Opportunity Workshop (COW).”

A Priori Perception

“Although first introduced with C.O.W., a fully developed and orchestrated version of this piece appeared on my big band album, Re:Visions under the title Measuring Up.

The original title, A Priori Perception came from Deborah (Muirhead) Dancy’s book Journal of the Ordinary, which I read prior to our first collaboration, in an effort to familiarize myself with themes within her previous work.”

Where Thinking Leaves Off

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.

Where Thinking Leaves Off is composed using cartoon drawings.  It 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).  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.”

I Never Told You

by Johnny Mandel

“This song came from the 1969 film, That Cold Day In The Park.  I first heard it on the solo piano CD, Fred Hersch Plays Johnny Mandel (1994), and thought it would adapt well to C.O.W.’s instrumentation, while providing some much needed contrast to our repertoire, which was perhaps ‘overly avant-garde’ at the time.  The melody is perfectly suited to the expressive nature of the cello, while the elegant blend between cello and tenor sax was an unexpected surprise.  The two instruments emulsify into a single sound.”

Bottom Feeders

“Despite its status as a timeless jazz classic, I decided to give a makeover to All Blues, by Miles Davis.  I changed the key, but kept his basic harmonic progression, form and time signature intact.  I modified the bass line ever so slightly and then applied some inverted fourths voicings to give it an updated, modern sound.  After recording several choruses of myself improvising over the vamp, I found this melody.  I call it Bottom Feeders, a term I overheard some students using and had to look up in the online urban dictionary.  Yes, I have reached the age where I need an interpreter to understand what my students are saying.”

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