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Kirk MacDonald explores symmetry in music

The title of Kirk MacDonald's new album is Symmetry, and listening to it you can hear all the connotations of that word: poise, proportion, and beauty.

“The underlying goal of all of that really is to compositionally find balance. Balance the elements so that we're seeing all sides ... two sides of the coin, or ying and yang,” MacDonald told OttawaJazzScene.ca.

Kirk MacDonald: symmetry in melody, rhythms, harmony.  ©Brett Delmage, 2013Ottawa audiences can hear this new music for the first time on Wednesday, June 25, as MacDonald's quartet performs in Confederation Park for the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The group will also play at the Rex as part of the Toronto Jazz Festival on June 26.

After several big band albums, the Juno-Award-winning saxophonist moved back to a smaller group for this album. It's his first quintet CD in almost 25 years. He teamed up with three musicians with whom he's played for many years: pianist Brian Dickinson and bassist Neil Swainson, both from Toronto, and American drummer Dennis Mackrel.

They'll be playing with MacDonald in Ottawa and Toronto next week. But the CD is augmented by another voice: renowned American trumpeter Tom Harrell.

Harrell was one of the first musicians MacDonald considered when planning the CD in early 2013. “I first heard him in the late 70s. I was just knocked out with his playing and I'm a huge fan of his writing.”

They had met again in 2012 when Harrell came to Humber College to do a clinic with his group, “and we talked a bit and I gave him a few recordings to listen to, and I thought, 'OK, that'll be the end of it'. [laughs] And he got back in touch and said 'Listen, I really love your recordings and your writing and your playing and it would be nice to ...' Basically he just reached out and said thank you for the music, [he] really enjoyed it.”

That inspired MacDonald to develop a project which could combine both their musical voices.

“I had some music that was specifically written for two voices. I love the way Tom Harrell plays and I thought this would be a great way to present this music, in terms of that voice, the other voice and what he brings as a musician he would be ideal.”

An underlying symmetry

When Harrell agreed, MacDonald started choosing pieces he'd written which would suit this combination of musicians, and looked for a connecting thread among them. That turned out to be the concept of symmetry.

Which has considerable intellectual and musical underpinnings, involving symmetrical harmonic devices, intervalic melodies, or “constructing melodies that had symmetrical qualities in terms of the intervalic relationships of the melodies combined with the harmonies. I set those kind of challenges for myself when I'm writing music, to find new ways of constructing forms.”

It turned out that he had “enough material that I had been playing for a while, and some newer pieces, that all connected in that way.” The pieces he chose had “symmetry either in the melody or in some cases some of the rhythms that I used to construct the tunes. Or in some cases harmonic symmetry as well."

But ultimately, he said, listeners can enjoy the music without knowing about that process: “it's just another way of achieving that feeling of balance in terms of composition. Balancing the elements in different ways.”

The quintet ended up recording the CD a year ago in Toronto, when Harrell had open slot in his schedule. It was a very efficient session: “with those guys, everything's for keeps. Some of the tunes we don't even have a second take of. Most we did two takes and I don't think we did more than two takes on anything. It doesn't really go any smoother than that.”

The musicians just clicked, he said. “It was fantastic. Tom is a real special musician. Even before he plays a note, he creates a vibe with the music. One of the things I remember about that is how focused he is and everything he plays is meaningful. So it was great and everyone sounded great.”

It says something about the strength of the compositions that they can be treated a number of different ways. So what you hear on my small band records is one vision of how that tune might work, which is mine. And that changes from performance to performance as well. And with the big band writers, that's their vision of where they want to go with the composition and I really welcome that kind of input and creativity.
– Kirk MacDonald

One of the newer pieces, “Shadows”, was inspired by a relative's experience with cancer. While the relative was being treated for one cancer, doctors discovered shadows on his lungs.

“Greenwich Time” is a tribute to Canadian jazz guitar master Sonny Greenwich. “I had a chance to play with him a bit over the years which has been influential. He was very important for me in my younger years here. When I got a chance to play with him a few times, that was a very important experience for me.”

“Mackrel's Groove” is dedicated to drummer Dennis Mackrel and MacDonald was delighted to be able to play it with him. “We play similar types of tunes and tempos and stuff. Just thinking about the way he played certain things like that was very helpful in that tune coming together for me.”

And “Eleven” is an example of harmonic symmetry. It's “sort of a tribute to Bill Evans” because it was inspired by many of the harmonic colours which Evans used.

Letting other musicians reenvision his compositions

Several of the songs – for example, “Eleven” and “Greenwich Time” – have also been recorded by MacDonald's big bands. But he said their original conception was for quintet, and they sound quite different with the smaller group.

That's because, for his big band, he hands over his tunes to other musicians to orchestrate. “[Montreal trumpeter] Joe Sullivan does a lot of writing for my big band. He basically rewrites everything, which is exactly why I love what he does. I'll give him a number of tunes to think about and he invariably will choose things that he feels he can do more with, himself. Joe almost totally rewrites the tune, and he's absolutely brilliant, what he does with it.”

Similarly, Terry Promane [of the Boss Brass] has orchestrated some of MacDonald's pieces: “it's closer to what I would do but just more weight with different colours available. So two very different approaches, and I try to say nothing about it. Occasionally I'll say, 'I need to feature P.J. Perry on something: why don't you do' ... something like that, but I try to just leave them to their own devices, learn the music, and interpret it as if it's their own composition.”

“So with the big band it's very different usually than what I write. And I like that fact because I think in some ways it says something about the strength of the compositions that they can be treated a number of different ways. So what you hear on my small band records is one vision of how that tune might work, which is mine. And that changes from performance to performance as well. And with the big band writers, that's their vision of where they want to go with the composition and I really welcome that kind of input and creativity because they usually go somewhere different than I would. So to me it breathes new life into things and keeps it fresh and interesting.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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