When faced with a breakup, some people cry, some vent, some drink. Montreal jazz guitarist Andy MacDonald went back to his first love, music.

Andy Mac ©2016 Nadine DeLange
Guitarist Andy Mac gives his new album, Asking for a Friend, its Ottawa debut on June 21
© 2016 Nadine DeLange

Three months after losing his girlfriend, he was in the studio, recording his debut album with a seven-piece band. Influenced by both his musical loves – New Orleans traditional music and gypsy jazz – Asking For A Friend is full of hurting songs, but performed in a bright, accessible style that almost belies their lyrics. The album features two original songs by MacDonald plus ten jazz standards.

MacDonald will debut the album in Ottawa on Friday, June 21, in a house concert in Ottawa South. Also on the bill are two Ottawa musicians who often play gypsy jazz: guitarist Justin Duhaime (an old friend) and clarinetist David Renaud. Keith Hartshorn-Walton will add a New Orleans vibe on bass and tuba; he's frequently played that style with Tenth Ward Shakedown.

OttawaJazzScene.ca first heard MacDonald, who usually is billed as “Andy Mac”, in a well-received concert with Toronto vocalist Denielle Bassels, where his forceful gypsy-jazz-influenced guitar and compositions added considerably to the vibrancy of the show.

He regularly performs in his own gypsy jazz trio, Les Petits Nouveaux, as well as with Bassels, and in gypsy jazz, swing, and trad/Dixieland jazz groups in Toronto and Montreal.

OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor interviewed MacDonald by phone last week. This is an edited and condensed version of the interview.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I'm curious why you decided to release your debut album now.

Andy MacDonald: There were a few factors, but I was on the wrong side of a breakup. And the time felt right to be emotionally vulnerable. So I poured myself into the music and the result was this album, Asking for a Friend.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long had you been with this person?

MacDonald: It was a four-year relationship.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So it was long enough to get comfortable with them, then, and really miss them afterwards.

MacDonald: Yes … she and I had plans of a much longer relationship, so it came as quite a shock to me to find it ending suddenly. And as I have always done throughout my life, I turned to the only thing that gives me solace and comfort – and that's music.

Everyone knows that, if you say, “I'm looking to score some fireworks this Friday, but I'm asking for a friend”, it's a phrase that has enough cultural weight that people go, he's not asking for a friend!
– Andy Mac

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You mentioned that you wanted this album to be the story of someone who is suffering and having a hard time being vulnerable. Is this telling your own story? Or are you imagining someone in a similar situation?

MacDonald: Yes, it is telling my own story. And I'm doing it in a way that is both comfortable for me and vulnerable. So I'm being vulnerable in a way that's still safe. I'm exposing myself a little bit – but protecting myself by saying, “Oh, it's not about me! It could be about anyone.”

That phrase, “asking for a friend” … Everyone knows that, if you say, “I'm looking to score some fireworks this Friday, but I'm asking for a friend”, it's a phrase that has enough cultural weight that people go, he's not asking for a friend!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: One of the lines in that song, “Asking for a Friend”, says “What is the prescription for this pain?” So are you saying that doing an album like this was a prescription for the pain you were feeling?

MacDonald: Precisely. Yes, my prescription for pain has always been music, and so when this painful event came up, music was the only avenue I had to … I don't want to say numb the pain, I'd rather say acknowledge the pain and sit with it.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How long was it between the breakup and you starting to think of creating the album and picking the songs?

MacDonald: A very short time. Two weeks, almost to the day. And then the album was recorded about three months to the day after. So it all came together very quickly.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That's fast just in terms of getting the musicians together and getting all the material together!

MacDonald: I have to also say that it started off as a “Hey, you know what? Let's throw up some microphones in my living room and we'll have a jam session, and we'll play these sad songs.” And as soon as [Montreal trumpeter] Andy King agreed to be in, I said, “Well, I can't put any old microphone in front of Andy King. We need to have a good studio!”

And as soon as we had a good studio, we needed to have a good producer, and as soon as the good producer's there, you need to make a CD!

So the budget ballooned, and that's the time that I created that crowd-funding campaign [on Indiegogo] to help soak up some of the costs.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you start the crowd-funding campaign before you did the recording?

MacDonald: It was about three weeks before the recording. I naively said, “I think I know what it costs to make a record. I've made a bunch of these before as a sideman. $3000 sounds about reasonable.”

The budget turned out to be closer to $8000. Some naiveté, perhaps.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When did you apply for the Canada Council grant?

MacDonald: The same week as the recording session. And they said, “Sorry, you weren't accepted,” so my VISA statement was filled with red ink for a few months. And then in March they called back, and said, “Hey, do you still need that grant? Because our fiscal year is not over yet and some funds have become available.” So it was a happy phone call to get!

You had to have been a fly on the wall when I got that phone call. I work as a music therapist, so it was just after a day of music therapy sessions. And I literally jumped for joy when I got that call!

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You mentioned on email that “part of me wanted to rush the uncomfortable feelings that came along with making this music”. Why was that?

MacDonald: It was very much during the writing. That uncomfortable feeling is hard to talk about. I think it was a feeling of loneliness.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Was it a barrier you had to push yourself through?

MacDonald: I think more than a barrier, I think it was something that I wanted to understand, and examine closer. So I'm just in the dumps of the aftermath of this long, fruitful relationship that I thought would continue on. I felt really lonely. So I set up like a loop station and started putting ideas through that loop station, and the lyrics came a few days after the song [“Asking for a Friend”] was composed.

I think the crux of the feelings came out when I was composing the music.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: “Asking for a Friend” is the first song you wrote for this album. Was the second one “Exposure Dollars”?

MacDonald: Yes, the second one was “Exposure Dollars”, and I actually pulled that from the vault. I wrote that about a year earlier, and I merged it with another standard, “I Ain't Got Nobody” [he sings “I ain't got nobody, nobody cares for me”]. That fit with the theme of the record to mix those two tunes together.

A lonely person who's feeling like their existence as a musician is further isolating – I think that was part of my narrative, too. [I thought] that “part of the reason she doesn't want to be with me is because I'm a musician, and musicians are these outcasts of society in some ways”. A lot of feelings there that led to “Exposure Dollars” being a tongue-in-cheek tune.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you pick the ten standards on the album? What vibe were you trying for in them?

MacDonald: I made a post on Facebook and said, “What are your favourite heartbreak jazz standards? Asking for a friend.” I got about a hundred responses of people saying, “I love this Billie Holiday tune or that Chet Baker tune!” That's how I picked the tunes: each one of the tunes on that album appeared somewhere in that thread. Obviously I didn't have enough time or money or anything to record all one hundred of the suggestions – so I picked the ones that were most meaningful to me at that time.

I made a post on Facebook and said, “What are your favourite heartbreak jazz standards? Asking for a friend.” I got about a hundred responses of people saying, “I love this Billie Holiday tune or that Chet Baker tune!”
– Andy Mac

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you know all of them? Was any of them a surprise to you?

MacDonald: No, all of them were familiar to me. I had to do some more research to figure out what chord changes to use, but all of them were in the back of my mind.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: You said in your email that vocalist Alex Pangman had suggested you write that song, “Asking For a Friend”, after seeing your Facebook post.

MacDonald: Yes, I was really humbled when she said, “You've got to make this tune. This your path.”

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How much work did it take to rearrange the standards for the seven-piece band (guitar, piano, bass, drums, clarinet, trumpet, trombone)?

MacDonald: A ton of work! [he laughs ruefully] Again a huge learning experience. I was naïve and thought that “I've arranged for groups before. I can probably spend an hour on each of these tunes and I'll do it on a Sunday afternoon.” And it was closer to a week: forty, maybe fifty hours to arrange those tunes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What sound were you aiming for in this album? They may have heartbreak lyrics, but the actual sound of the album is not heartbreak.

MacDonald: I'm not as careful in trying to construct a sound as I am in other things. But you're not the first person to point out that the music feels joyful – and I agree with that. So, I don't know. That wasn't my intention. The joyfulness that's coming through in there is not how I was feeling when I sat down to write them.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: In terms of style, I heard mostly a trad jazz style. Is that a style you feel particularly comfortable in?

MacDonald: Actually, when I did set out to record this music, I put two bands together. There was a Django band, and a New Orleans trad band. We recorded six songs on Day 1 with the Django band and six tunes on Day 2 with the New Orleans band.

The initial idea was to have a two-side record, side A New Orleans and side B Django. But then I listened to the flow and the storyline wasn't there. You know when one song title flows nicely into the next one, and you end on B minor so the next one is going to go to G major? It's easy on the ears.

So scrap that idea [of two sides]. We [ended up with] this 12 piece record that's more narrative-oriented than two bands.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So, in other words, you put them in the order that made them flow best.

MacDonald: Yes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: When did you release the album?

MacDonald: We released it on March 6. We had a release party at Upstairs [Jazz Club in Montreal].

OttawaJazzScene.ca: With the same people as on the record?

MacDonald: Yes. As many people as we can fit on … Have you been to Upstairs? It's a tiny stage. We had a six-person band, including Dave Kosmyna who came up from Toledo, Ohio. He is the trumpet player on “When Your Lover Has Gone” and he's the piano player on “Love Me or Leave Me”. This guy is Mr. Louis Armstrong reincarnate.

I met some gypsy jazz musicians, and that music just took hold of my heart. when I heard the really accessible, bouncy, bright gypsy jazz sounds, I thought, “I've got to figure out how to do that”.
– Andy Mac

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What brought you to this album? What's your own background, and what introduced you to jazz?

MacDonald: I did my undergrad at Humber College. That was my welcome to the world of jazz standards and American jazz.

In 2009 – almost to the day! This is wild, Alayne! – it was in June of 2009 that I went to France on a backpacking trip as a fresh 22-year-old, halfway through my Humber College studies. I met some gypsy jazz musicians, and that music just took hold of my heart.

When I heard it for the first time, it was so simple and joyful and bouncy – nothing like the … At Humber they had us learning these really tense chords and bebop scales and things that just didn't move me emotionally. So when I heard the really accessible, bouncy, bright gypsy jazz sounds, I thought, “I've got to figure out how to do that” and as it turned out, there were not many people doing that in Toronto.

So I brought that hunger back to Toronto with me, and connected with people like Drew Jurecka and Jesse Barksdale, and started investigating the style.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you remember the name of the group you heard in France?

MacDonald: No, it was was like these buskers in a park.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So it was almost serendipity...

MacDonald: It was. A really magical moment, and I can still remember the sun was high in the sky and the breeze was smooth. We were right next to a mountain and a big lake near Annecy in the east of France. I'm sure I've embellished this in my memory, too. It's just a magical moment of discovering that music.

When I came back from that trip to France that led to a decade-long infatuation with this style.

I started this gypsy jazz trio called Les Petits Nouveaux, [which] is still playing to this day. We're in our seventh year. We do almost yearly performances in Sweden because one of the band members of Les Petits Nouveaux is Swedish, so he gets us gigs over there.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Did you study gypsy jazz with anyone else?

MacDonald: In 2013, I received funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to move to Montreal for four months. At that point I studied under [guitarist] Denis Chang. Denis is the North American, if not the world's, guru of jazz manouche pedagogy. I think at the time that I arrived to see him it was perfect: he just really sharpened my lens for what to focus on in that style.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: I understand you also work as a music therapist. How does your musical career mesh with your music therapy career?

MacDonald: In many ways, but a big part of it is that I do a lot of work in geriatrics. My music therapy work is half geriatrics, half mental health. But in the geriatrics setting, a lot of this old jazz repertoire is really familiar to the seniors that I work with, and so I'm able to bring those familiar 20s, 30s, 40s jazz standards into my music therapy work. It's been quite helpful.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is there anything else that you've done in terms of learning jazz manouche, or expanding your repertoire?

MacDonald: I'm on a constant quest. Anytime I've over to play in Europe, I've gotten lessons. One guy I've taken a few lessons with is [French jazz and gypsy jazz guitarist] Serge Krief.

I wrote a thesis [for my music therapy Masters degree at Concordia University] about my jazz manouche musician identity, and how it compares to my emerging music therapist identity. So in that thesis, I tried to figure out what my unconscious musical assumptions are, because we all have them, and they impact our music therapeutic relationships with clients. But that's not as pertinent to the music I'm playing.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Tell me about the house concert. How did that come about?

MacDonald: That concert came about from a years-long relationship with Justin Duhaime. Justin and I have been playing since 2016, when we first met. Every time he comes to Montreal we end up jamming together, usually with Denis Chang. And every time I go to Ottawa, where my brother and some of my other family members live, we end up playing together too!

So I got in touch with Justin a few months ago, and said, “Hey, we should do an Ottawa release party for this album”, and he put me in touch with two of the best musicians for this style in Ottawa, so they're going to be great for this CD release.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What will people hear at the house concert?

MacDonald: They'll be hearing a mix of tunes from the new album, Django Reinhardt-style standards, and New Orleans traditional jazz songs.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So pretty accessible music for a heartbreak album?

MacDonald: Very much so, yes.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: What are your plans now that you've released this album?

MacDonald: Actually, I finished this album, and went “Wow! This is great, but I can do a much better job if I take the time I really need to.”

So the next step is to go to New Orleans for one month, and record every conversation I have there, and every jam session, and every concert, and take all those recordings to the Banff Centre for a one-month composition residency, and compose music based on those conversations, those concerts, those jam sessions, to bring a more authentic New Orleans flavour to the composition process. And then to come back to Toronto and record an album with Drew Jurecka.

Assuming that the funding comes through [from the Quebec Arts Council, the Canada Council, and the Banff Centre for the Arts], I would leave in September. And the new album wouldn't come out until September of 2020.

Andy Mac, Justin Duhaime, David Renaud, and Keith Hartshorn-Walton will release Asking for a Friend in a house concert on Friday, June 21, 2019 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25, available on Eventbrite or at the door.

Get there! The show will be held at 393 Sunnyside Avenue in Ottawa South. OC Transpo route 7 stops close by, and route 6 on Bank Street several blocks away. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to the show!