This Friday evening, Kirk MacDonald, one of Canada's preeminent jazz saxophonists and composers, will make a rare Ottawa appearance.

But it won't be with his quartet or his big band. Instead, it will show a different side of MacDonald – as teacher and as a role model – as he appears as a guest artist with the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB).

Kirk MacDonald at his last Ottawa appearance in May 2013. ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Kirk MacDonald at his last Ottawa appearance in May 2013. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

For the students in the band, playing with MacDonald will show “them in ways that words can't describe what the next level of musicianship is,” said NACJB director Neil Yorke-Slader.

“I think it's like playing on an athletic team with someone who's better than you. You see the next level up close. You think you're playing a particular line a certain way with the right amount of style or conviction or accuracy. And then somebody who's at the next level plays it, and you go 'Oh, I never really thought about that. I need to end the note exactly there, I need to shape the note this particular way, or I need to play with a certain vibrato on the front of the note. Or I need to attack it harder.' ”

Yorke-Slader said he finds that the high school students he works with need “to play with more conviction, play like you're 45 years old, play like you mean it! I can talk about that all I want, but to have somebody five feet away from them doing it just shows them.”

MacDonald said that performing with students puts what he does as a musician “on a more tangible level”.

“When you're on the bandstand there's a different kind of intensity than in the classroom. So [it puts] them in the situation where they have to deal with things as they come up and pretty much in the moment. Decisions are made very quickly, you need to commit to things, you need to be prepared, you need to be in shape musically, psychologically, physically. All those kinds of things.

“It's just like: here it is. This is what we do.”

When MacDonald works with students, he said, he tries to “assess where they are and try to have some kind of recollection of what things meant to you at that time, and find a way of communicating that. Encourage them to find ways of pursuing their own path with music, if that's what they want to do.”

“Professional musicians, what we do have is the benefit of experience on our side. So [I] just try to provide some kind of realistic picture of what they need to do and how much they might need to commit to actually reach their own potential. It's different with every student.”

When he was starting out, he said, the more experienced musicians he played with and learned from “didn't necessarily want to or know how how to take the time to translate musical information verbally. Like when I was first working with guys like Sam Noto or Sonny Greenwich or Claude Ranger, the verbal part of it, that kind of reaching out and communication wasn't necessarily a big part of the music.”

He tries to communicate to students “anyway I can, whether it's verbally or just by being there or doing what you do. It's just like you spread the net wide and hopefully the message will get through.”

This will be MacDonald's first appearance with the NACJB, although the group often features a guest artist at its spring concert. Previous guests included Pat LaBarbera, Christine Jensen, Campbell Ryga, and Bob Mintzer.

But the big band format will be very familiar: two of MacDonald's last three CDs (Family Suite for Large Ensemble [Addo, 2012] and Deep Shadows [Addo, 2011]) were with his own big band. He also has decades of experience teaching university and high school jazz students in Ottawa and Toronto, where he's currently a professor at Humber College.

With younger musicians, part of that exchange is just showing them that it's actually possible to follow that road and do something creative with your life, and just follow what it is that you set out to do.
– Kirk MacDonald

MacDonald heard the NACJB play last spring at The Rex in Toronto during MusicFest, the national student music festival. “They sounded great!”

He said he had also had taught NACJB alumni, at both the University of Toronto and Humber. “The band has a very good reputation.”

The band will be playing a wide range of big band originals, including pieces by Canadians Mike Murley and Alex Dean, by well-known Americans John LaBarbera and Bob Mintzer, and by Yorke-Slader himself.

The set list won't include any of MacDonald's compositions, however. While he has written many big band compositions, they are “pretty challenging.” With the NACJB, “I'm trying to put myself in their space and play things that they're comfortable with.”

He will also lead a clinic for students at Merivale High School on Friday afternoon.

MacDonald said he enjoyed playing with students.

“I like the exchange. It's great to see people grow. And with musicians it's also great. I've got people that I've worked with and I've known for 30 or 35 years and they're still chipping away at things, as I am. And with younger musicians, part of that exchange is just showing them that it's actually possible to follow that road and do something creative with your life, and just follow what it is that you set out to do.”

    – Alayne McGregor

Coming shortly: an interview with Kirk MacDonald on his new CD, Symmetry.

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