Earl MacDonald: Open Borders

Dan Bilawsky By

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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 him thinking about all the good that comes of a wholehearted embrace of diversity. The differences that theoretically separate these ten musicians—age, faith, race, sex, and heritage—don't serve as impediments to communication or act as a threat to anybody's greater being. In fact, quite the opposite comes of this medium-scale gathering. This music, powered by each player's distinctive traits and bound by MacDonald's writing, shines with the light of diversity.

MacDonald's reduction/adaptation of his big band arrangement on Canadian drummer Tyler Hornby's "Dig In Buddy" opens the album and serves as the perfect introduction to his writing and the men and women behind this music. It's a swinging chart that takes a modern slant on a Jazz Messengers sound. More than half the personnel is showcased through mini-solo slots, and two voices of note—alto saxophonist Kris Allen and trumpeter Josh Evans—stand in the spotlight. It need be noted, however, that this is not your garden variety blowing tune. Ever the thoughtful arranger, MacDonald makes sure that the band provides finely crafted riffs and guideposts—"solo enhancements," as he prefers to call them—to keep things moving and hold interest. His own "Sordid Sort Of Fellow" follows and, to a certain extent, follows suit. It's a twist on "Rhythm" changes that opens with a snazzy, brush-driven statement and features a show-stealing MacDonald solo. The leader's gifts with the pen are apparent on both of those tracks, as the sound of ten can balloon to the sonic proportions of twenty or fold inward to sound like a small combo.

While those first two numbers speak to an upbeat swing aesthetic, what follows offers a wider range of expressions. "Mirror Of The Mind," taking cues from Aaron Copland's grand aural landscapes, opens on a gorgeous chorale-like portrait before riding atop a steady eighth chassis; "Miles Apart" has a bluer-than-blue identity, slowly swinging and singing; the programmatic "Smoke And Mirrors," speaking to a fictitious leader's dirty secret and a related rise and fall in fortunes, marries noir-ish thoughts and classical notions before sharply veering into funk territory and moving into quieter questioning realms; and "Dolphy Dance" is an imagining of the great Eric Dolphy's horn voice taking root in the New York salsa scene.

As far as soloists go, MacDonald, Evans, Allen, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, and baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian prove to be the standouts. But everybody makes their mark at one time or another. Alex Gertner's French horn is central to the success of "Smoke And Mirrors," drummer Ben Bilello is a force of controlled dynamism, trombonist Sara Jacovino makes her personality felt in a variety of situations, trumpeter Jeff Holmes accentuates the mood on "Miles Apart," and bassist Henry Lugo is the glue that holds things together. Add to the list percussionist Ricardo Monzon, who drops by to add a touch of spice to "Dolphy Dance," and guest vocalist Atla DeChamplain, who joins the band for an "East Of The Sun" sendoff. The message here is clear: forget homogeneity and xenophobia. Diversity is the ultimate tool for unification.

Track Listing

Dig In Buddy; Sordid Sort Of Fellow; Mirror Mind; Appointment In Ghana; Miles Apart; Hit The Road Jack; Smoke And Mirrors; Catch Of The Day; Blame It On My Youth; Dolphy Dance; East Of The Sun.


Earl MacDonald: piano; Kris Allen: alto saxophone; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Lauren Sevian: baritone saxophone; Jeffrey Holmes: trumpet; Josh Evans: trumpet; Alex Gertner: French horn; Sara Jacovino: trombone; Ben Bilello: drums; Henry Lugo: bass; Atla DeChamplain: vocals (11); Ricardo Monzon: percussion (10).

Album information

Title: Open Borders | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Death Defying Records


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