Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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By way of introduction...

Saxophonist Raymond MacDonald is a busy man. He balances the life of a gigging, recording musician with a high-flying academic career and, in both respects, his reputation has grown far beyond his Glasgow home. As a musician, he is perhaps best known for his work with the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald group, with the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO), which he helped form, and with the saxophone quartet, the Hung Drawn Quartet. Both the Burt/MacDonald group and GIO form major elements in MacDonald's musical life and will continue to do so. The orchestra's story is covered in some detail elsewhere on All About Jazz, so it is the other areas of his activity that we will concentrate on here.

Increasingly, MacDonald can be found performing in duo with the likes of pianists Marilyn Crispell and, from Australia, Alister Spence or with Japanese pianist-composer Satoko Fujii. In addition, there have been duos with GIO guitarist Neil Davidson and another with German drummer Gunter Baby Sommer. Both are important partnerships and MacDonald has plans to tour with Sommer in 2016. Along the way, the saxophonist has even worked with musician and auteur David Byrne.

A keen musician from a young age, MacDonald's first professional gig was playing guitar in an Indie pop band, which he combined with studies for a PhD in Psychology. We will return to the 'grown-up' career later. But we start with his move into the world of jazz and improvisation. How did the involvement with guitarist George Burt come about?

"I started playing with George in the early to mid-nineties," MacDonald explains. "We were both working in jazz contexts. George had his own group, the George Burt Quartet, and I was in various groups. George asked me to join the quartet on sax. There was an instant rapport between us, a sense that we were both very comfortable playing changes and playing our own material but also playing free."

Sometimes a quartet, sometimes a quintet or sextet or maybe even an octet, there are few bands that can boast a back catalogue as diverse as these guys. The group's membership has remained remarkably consistent and this has no doubt contributed to a strong and cohesive identity. Each CD is quite different from the others and yet the listener is always aware that this is the George Burt/Raymond MacDonald group. For MacDonald and Burt this is particularly important.

"I'm really pleased that you say that because there was a period when we were producing one, sometimes two CDs a year and it was essential for us that we weren't just turning out the same stuff but that each album had a particular sound." That sense of a group identity is also central to MacDonald's artistic ambitions and to his view of jazz and music in general.

"It's that thing about the group being more important than the individual," he tells me. "I've always valued that and that is really important to GIO as well. It's a really rewarding way to make music and more in keeping with what the essence of music is—that is as a fundamental channel of communication and a form of distributed creativity. The idea of a mediated group identity that emerges from the music is absolutely crucial and to be celebrated."

He continues, "I think that is often missed in the history of jazz. I'm not questioning the status of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Of course, these are legends but often the group they were working with at the time doesn't get the credit it should because these musicians were all working within a social context. In some cases, that social context was just as important as the individual genius in terms of creating the music that changed the world. Kind of Blue is a good example. The way in which they were working socially, the economic situation they shared, the group dynamic, the studio environment —these factors produced the uniqueness of Kind of Blue, as much as Miles Davis' genius. It was situated in a time when musicians were working in a particular kind of way that allowed that to happen."

For much of their early/mid-career, the excellent Alan Pendreigh was Burt and MacDonald's drummer of choice, though others sometimes depped on gigs and even recordings. Pendreigh retired in the mid-noughties. Since, then Burt and MacDonald have used a number of drummers included Tom Bancroft (of Bancroft jazz dynastic fame), Ken Hyder and GIO stalwart Stuart Brown. George Lyle, who also plays with GIO, has played bass throughout the group's history and is a gift to any band, with great time but also the ability to switch direction instantly when required. The other regular Burt/MacDonald member is vocalist and melodica player, Nicola MacDonald, her graceful, fragile voice being a major element in the band's soundscape. The melodica is a strange instrument to find in a jazz context but paired with soprano sax or guitar it has a strange, otherworldly quality.

In Coxhill we trust...

A plan emerged early in the band's career that has guided them ever since. From their first CD, Oh Hello (BMacD 1998), to their most recent, Think About It (Textile 2007), their music has been shaped by a determination to experiment and a desire to collaborate with musicians they admire. Lol Coxhill came into the band's orbit early on—MacDonald tells me they gave the saxophonist their first CD, asking if he would be interested in a collaboration. The reply was typical Coxhill, "If I like it, you'll hear from me. If I don't, you won't!" He did and they did and the association led to a series of records -Tsunami, Coxhill Street and Popcorn (all FMR) -that took the band from the more conventional material of Oh Hello and Big Brothers (BMacD 2000) into music that was exclusively freely improvised.

MacDonald explains, "Each project involved having a particular artistic vision and particular objectives we wanted to meet. The goal with Oh Hello and Big Brothers was to write material, George's and mine, to include songs and conventionally scored material alongside free improvisation but once we had done those two albums, we felt there was a whole world of free improvising that wasn't documented on CD. So, we then did those three albums with Lol." Coxhill also contributes to two later albums, Hotel Dilettante (Textile 2005) and One Bloke (Textile 2010).

Another early collaborator was pianist Keith Tippett. Their opportunity to work together came with a commission to write a suite to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tobermory town clock on the island of Mull. Burt and MacDonald constructed a suite focusing on the relationship between 19th century island residents, the Bird sisters—Isabella, an inveterate traveller and the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and Henrietta, who lived much of her life on Mull and to whom Isabella wrote many letters on her travels. The town clock itself commemorates the sisters' relationship.

"We spent a week on Mull recording the CD and it was a defining moment for the band," MacDonald says. "We discovered that Keith's approach chimed closely with mine and George's—the melodic sensibilities, free improvisation, the playfulness but also the seriousness of the music as well." And he adds, "Working with George has been such a revelation. As well as being a devastatingly original, virtuosic and, dare I say, underappreciated guitarist, George is one of the few musicians I work with, who can be really funny but the gravitas of what he is doing doesn't disappear. Keith is exactly the same. He has his little music boxes and these little Mozart minuets appear and the way he plays piano. Virtuosity, intense passion and humour all merge effortlessly in Keith's music and that resonated with us." There is certainly a Chaplinesque quality to George Burt—or perhaps a "Chaplin meets Chick Murray" sort of quality and humour or rather a sense of play is a key ingredient in Burt and MacDonald's music.

The association with Tippett led to two CDs, A Day For A Reason and Boohoo Fever (2005 and 2007, both on Leo Records). Tippett has also written a suite of music for the Burt/MacDonald group called Absolutely Specifically For You, which is recorded and awaits release.

For me, the Burt/MacDonald albums, which stand out are the two with Keith Tippett and the three, which appeared on Textile Records -Hotel Dilettante, One Bloke and Think About It. The last three sound very different but are clearly related.

"I think those CDs form a little group. Textile was never a free jazz label but they combined experimental pop with free improvisation. So, I think that what you hear on those records are those melodic aspects, some electronica, some sampling and loops. The guests that we invited to play on those CDs fitted with the Textile ethos as well, so on Think About It you have Bill Wells on piano, Daniel Padden on clarinet and vocals, Lol, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and Michael Zerang on drums, who are part of the Chicago scene. So, you also have that Chicago scene influence as well. I felt there were a lot of similarities between the Chicago and Glasgow scenes at that time. There and here, experimental pop musicians were working with the free jazz musicians across various different labels and projects."

Zerang and Lonberg-Holm were touring with Peter Brotzmann at the time and were able to stay in Glasgow at the end of the tour, playing a concert and recording the CD with the Burt/MacDonald group. The pair fitted in perfectly to the band's soundworld, not just because they are fine improvisers. It is in the very nature of the group that they are able to adapt that world to their various guests. It is the paradox of improvisation—that capacity to change but remain in essence the same.

One Bloke (2007) was dedicated to the great Steve Lacy, who had just passed away and in its title references the FMP album, Three Blokes featuring, Lacy, Coxhill and Evan Parker. For MacDonald, One Bloke is the bridge between the worlds of Hotel Dilettante and Think About It. Hotel Dilettante is the most structured of the three and is a wonderfully dense, darkly melodic jazz-psychedelic masterpiece with Burt, at times, seemingly channelling Jerry Garcia. One Bloke contains elements of more open material alongside almost song-like forms and this leads to the freer, fragmentary almost minimalist approach of Think About It.

Thinking about it...

In many respects, much of the Burt/MacDonald catalogue eschews the Sturm und Drang of one major free improv school, lending itself to more minimalistic concerns with texture and the relationship between small sounds and space. I wonder if such concerns—the therapeutic aspects of music, for example -arise as much from MacDonald's academic work. He is currently Head of Music and Professor of Music Psychology and Improvisation at Edinburgh University. Understandably, he sees no real separation between these areas of his working life.



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