Home » Jazz Musicians » Earl MacDonald

Earl MacDonald

Described as “a magical, musical alchemist of hip hybrids” (Hartford Courant) and “a major force in the world of jazz composition” (Dan Bilawsky, AllAboutJazz.com), MacDonald’s inexhaustible commitment to the jazz art form reveals itself in his performing, composing and teaching.

All seven of MacDonald’s albums differ in instrumentation — ranging from a quartet comprised of cello, saxophone, piano & percussion to a full 17-piece jazz big band. This variance speaks to MacDonald’s restless artistic spirit, unquenchable inquisitiveness and his desire to continue stretching himself musically. Such experimentation led one reviewer to speculate vis-à-vis “. . . an attempt to create a hybrid jazz form” (JazzReview.com). Each project leaves an indelible impression, garnering critical acclaim and accolades: two Independent Music Awards (for Jazz Song and Jazz Producer of the Year) and two JUNO nominations for jazz album of the year.

As a composer, MacDonald embraces the roles of social commentator and provocateur, broaching consequential subject matter in his music. In addition to composing music for his own ensembles and recording projects, MacDonald often receives commissions to write pieces for jazz big bands. Praised for his creative compositional voice, MacDonald won the Sammy Nestico Award, sponsored by the Airmen of Note, was a finalist for Charlie Parker Jazz Composition Award (during his affiliation with the BMI Jazz Composer’s Workshop in New York City) and twice he appeared as a finalist for the ArtEZ Composition Contest in the Netherlands. His compositions for 17-piece jazz orchestra have been performed by professional and university- based ensembles across North America.

MacDonald serves as a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut. The UConn Chapter of the AAUP honored MacDonald with its Excellence in Teaching Innovation Award (2006), and the Teaching Promise award (2003). In 2013 he garnered the Outstanding Faculty Award for the School of Fine Arts. His passion for jazz education stretches beyond UConn; he adjudicates educational jazz festivals in the U.S. and Canada, presents at conferences, conducts high school honor bands, and teaches at summer programs and jazz camps.

His own education includes a bachelor of music degree in jazz performance at Montréal’s McGill University and a master of music degree from Rutgers, where he apprenticed with NEA Jazz Master, Kenny Barron. (Barron’s recording of MacDonald’s Wanton Spirit earned a Grammy- nomination.) MacDonald jokes about “attending the Maynard Ferguson Finishing School for Bandleaders-in-Training.” The experience he gained as Ferguson’s pianist and musical director at the end of the 1990s cast a formative imprint.

Read more


Album Review

Earl MacDonald: Consecrated

Read "Consecrated" reviewed by Dan Bilawsky

The searching spirit that drives the work of composer and pianist Earl MacDonald is both a reflection on musical curiosity and, to a deeper extent, a statement of faith. Bringing both of those identity-shaping aspects to the fore like never before, MacDonald uses Consecrated to work toward a higher purpose. Reshaping and resetting a series of traditional hymns in sophisticated yet accessible fashion, he conveys the core values of his Christian beliefs—love, kindness, charity—with class and creative purpose.

Album Review

Earl MacDonald: Open Borders

Read "Open Borders" reviewed by Jack Bowers

Open Borders brings to the fore Canadian-born pianist Earl MacDonald's burnished tentet in a program that consists of eleven sunlit and swinging themes, five of which were composed by the leader. Besides writing, MacDonald did most of the arranging, and he excels in both arenas, as he does on piano (most notably on the standards “Blame It On My Youth" and “East of the Sun" as well as on Percy Mayfield's R&B classic “Hit the Road Jack" and his own ...

Album Review

Earl MacDonald: Open Borders

Read "Open Borders" reviewed by Mike Jurkovic

Not many piano led ensembles finds the pianist laying as far back in the musical dialogue as Earl MacDonald, who doesn't come anywhere near an extended solo until “Miles Apart" and Percy Mayfield's Ray Charles blow- out “Hit The Road Jack" (tracks five and six respectively). But that's just fine given that MacDonald has charted the conversations and man oh man, do these arrangements crackle with spirit.From the high-flying “Dig In Buddy" to the exhilarating Latin flavors “Dolphy ...

Album Review

Earl MacDonald: Open Borders

Read "Open Borders" reviewed by Dan Bilawsky

Politicians might do well to take a few pointers from pianist-arranger Earl MacDonald. As this fine album attests to, it's far better to build bridges than walls, and far more productive to open borders and dialogue than close hearts, minds, and doors. While MacDonald didn't initially set out to make a political statement with this recording, both the events of the day and the make-up of the marvelously tight dectet that brings this music to life got ...

Album Review

Earl MacDonald and the Creative Opportunity Workshop: Mirror of the Mind

Read "Mirror of the Mind" reviewed by Bruce Lindsay

Death Defying Records, it says on the cover. A doom-laden title for a record label but any expectations of a frenzy of black metal or gangster rap are soon dispelled by the beautiful cello and piano interplay on the opening bars of the title track. Mirror Of The Mind, from pianist Earl MacDonald and the Creative Opportunity Workshop, is an album that surprises and delights--from the unusual piano, cello, sax and percussion line-up to the mix of styles and inspirations ...

Album Review

Earl MacDonald and the Creative Opportunity Workshop: Mirror of the Mind

Read "Mirror of the Mind" reviewed by Edward Blanco

Not satisfied with the traditional jazz spectrum, pianist and educator Earl MacDonald explores new ways of expressing his progressive taste and with Mirror of the Mind deciding to challenge the boundaries of jazz with a unique instrumentation and sound forged by his new band, Creative Opportunity Workshop. As Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut and former director of Maynard Ferguson's Big Bop Nouveau Band, MacDonald has had plenty of experience in the large ensemble circuit and with ...

Album Review

Earl MacDonald: Re:Visions

Read "Re:Visions" reviewed by Woodrow Wilkins

In a period when many new recordings feature trios, quartets or other small ensembles, it's refreshing when a full-size orchestra comes along. Pianist, composer and arranger Earl MacDonald offers that refreshment with Re:Visions--Works for Jazz Orchestra. MacDonald is a native of Winnipeg, Canada and director of jazz studies at the University of Connecticut. A winner of several awards, MacDonald spent two years as musical director, pianist and arranger for the Maynard Ferguson Big Bop Nouveau Band. He composed ...

Read more articles


Pianist, Composer, Arranger Earl MacDonald release new recording “Open Borders”

Pianist, Composer, Arranger Earl MacDonald release  new recording “Open Borders”

Source: Two for the Show Media

Pianist Earl MacDonald, Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Connecticut, is set to release his fifth album as a bandleader—Open Borders. For this project, the two-time JUNO-award nominee assembled a lean and mean 10-piece band, capable of capturing the intimate subtleties of a jazz combo, or packing the walloping punch of a full big band. The album successfully blends “smart, economical writing with fabulous blowing.” (Marc Myers, JazzWax) Described as “a major force in the world of jazz ...

Press Quotes, listed by album:


Open Borders (2017)


"The leader’s gifts with the pen are apparent, as the sound of ten can balloon to the sonic proportions of twenty or fold inward to sound like a small combo."

~ Dan Bilawsky, All-About-Jazz


"Diversity, dynamism, and equilibrium are fundamental aspects in Earl MacDonald’s music- making. These eleven stylishly orchestrated pieces are a pure reflection of his musical capabilities."

~ Filipe Freitas, JazzTrail.net


"Man oh man, do these arrangements crackle with spirit! From the high-flying 'Dig In Buddy' to the exhilarating Latin flavors 'Dolphy Dance,' MacDonald’s prodigious gifts as an arranger shine."

~ Mike Jurkovic, All-About-Jazz


Read more

Primary Instrument




Willing to teach

Intermediate to advanced


Earl MacDonald teaches at the University of Connecticut. Although he is not currently accepting private students outside of UConn, he has posted several free, online jazz piano and improvisation lessons on his website.

Clinic/Workshop Information

MacDonald has enjoyed guest conducting opportunities with a wide range of ensembles including the U.S.A.F. Airmen of Note, the BMI-New York Jazz Orchestra, the UConn Wind Ensemble and Symphony Orchestra, university jazz ensembles at North Texas, Northern Illinois, Rutgers, the University of Manitoba, and Amherst College, as well as regional high school honor ensembles throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, and the MENC All-Eastern Jazz Ensemble. He works as an adjudicator and clinician at educational jazz festivals, in- service conferences, and summer camps across Canada and the United States.

Gil Evans
composer / conductor
Bill Holman
composer / conductor
Thad Jones
Vince Mendoza
composer / conductor



Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson


Outside in Music


Open Borders

Death Defying Records


Quintet Matinee

University of Connecticut


Mirror of the Mind

Death Defying Records



Death Defying Records


Echoes In The Night

Sea Breeze Jazz


Be Still, My Soul

From: Consecrated
By Earl MacDonald



Get more of a good thing!

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories, our special offers, and upcoming jazz events near you.