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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.

"I see my work—performing, composing, psychology, researching, writing, teaching—as one activity," he argues. "I don't draw clear demarcations between my work as a musician and as a teacher. I use some of the same strategies that we use with GIO -for example, conduction -when I'm working with young children who've never played any music or with experienced classical musicians interested in improvisation or when I'm working in hospitals. And I use those same strategies in my own compositional work. It's better to say that my career operates in two contexts, which help each other out—teaching and performing. When I'm travelling to play concerts or record, I can also give lectures and discuss my academic work. And, often if I get invited to a conference, if it's somewhere I have a contact, I can also play concerts as well."

At the same time, the range and amount of activity, with which MacDonald engages astonishes. We mentioned at the beginning the Hung Drawn Quartet. Of their two albums to date, only Hey There You Hosers is still available. It is a warm, witty record performed by four musicians who are also great rhythm players. Though the group has now broken up, MacDonald tells me that he continues to work with tenor saxophonist Graeme Wilson (a GIO stalwart), both "academically and musically" and he adds, "Graeme is one of my most important collaborators. He has been a huge part of my career since 1990 when we were busking together on Sauchiehall Street!" (laughing)

When David Byrne's manager phoned in 2002 asking if MacDonald would be interested in providing a track for a film soundtrack, it was the HDQ that seemed the most obvious candidate to meet Byrne's requirements. "I got a call out of the blue one day from David Byrne's agent," he says chuckling at the memory. "The woman said, 'Hallo, I work with David Byrne. You're on his wish list of Scottish musicians he'd like to work with. Are you okay for lunch on Friday?' I said, 'Yes, I can. I am available for that particular lunch!'" (laughing)"

Byrne was working on the soundtrack for a film by director David Mackenzie, Young Adam starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton. When MacDonald met Byrne and Mackenzie, the director told him, "I like Charles Mingus and here's a scene in the film we'd like you to do the music for." It turned out to be quite a controversially graphic sex scene involving tomato ketchup and custard.

MacDonald continues, "I watched it and the images of the scene and the situation itself were quite discombobulating. However, when David Mackenzie said, 'Do you think you can do something with that?,' I did have the presence of mind to realise that the correct answer was 'Yes. Yes, I can do something with that.' (laughing) So, David Byrne said, 'Hire whoever you want and be in the studio next Wednesday for a six hour session.' And David McKenzie said, 'Oh, I really like "Haitian Fight Song."'"

Having decided on using the Hung Drawn Quartet, MacDonald added George Lyle on bass and Stuart Brown on drums. The way the music was recorded involved each musician having both MacDonald's arrangement of "Haitian Fight Song" and a monitor playing the custard and ketchup scene.

"So, they had the music that covered that aspect from point A to point B," MacDonald explains, "but could also step out of the music and respond to what was happening in the scene." "It was lovely working with David Byrne," he continues, "because he would just come in occasionally and say, 'Can we have a bit more of that and a bit less of that?' He was just very encouraging. I had only met him for half an hour and gone away and done the arrangement and I was worried that I might have got completely the wrong end of the stick and they might have wanted something totally different. But it just so happened that I had picked up on the right elements."

MacDonald continues to collaborate with David Mackenzie, along with 2011 Turner Prize winner Martin Boyce on a project that explores art, music and film. "So, we have been travelling quite a bit developing sculptural work, sound work and film in different contexts," he tells me and I just wonder where he finds the time.

All play and no work...

MacDonald describes pianist Satoko Fujii, with whom he has now worked on many occasions, as a "powerhouse" and as "one of the hardest working musicians around." Rather begs the question as to how one might describe Professor Raymond MacDonald, academic, teacher, saxophonist, jazz musician, free improviser, band leader, composer and auteur. I ask how he came to collaborate with Fujii and her trumpeter husband Natsuki Tamura.

"We set up a performance and a recording session in Glasgow. I picked up Satoko and Natsuki from the airport and within an hour we were in the studio making the CD Cities (Nu-Jazz 2009). To just meet someone and within a couple of hours be recording with them and to be happy with what we produced was an exciting adventure and a testament to the power of improvisation as a meeting place for collaboration and the negotiation of ideas. I've been to Japan a few times now and Satoko has been really helpful in setting up all sorts of interesting collaborations."

One hugely successful collaboration led to the album Buddy (Textile 2008), featuring the Raymond MacDonald International Big Band. MacDonald had, with Fujii's help, played with a large ensemble on a previous trip. On his next visit, he asked her if she could fix a band and book a venue and engineer, so they could record the concert. It was a stellar band with Fujii, Tamura, pianist Alister Spence, tuba player Gideon Juckes, Lloyd Swanton from the The Necks on bass and on guitar the great Jim O'Rourke. MacDonald continues the tale,

"Jim O'Rourke was interested and available. Alister Spence was in Tokyo. All the musicians invited were available. Rehearsals were about giving people a sense of the geography and the sound world of each piece and also to be sure that the signals and communication was clear. I had a set of twelve pieces and I had given myself just ten or fifteen minutes to rehearse each one. Once, I had an idea a piece was going to work, I'd move on to the next piece. So, what you hear on the CD is actually the first time the band had played the piece in detail. (laughing) I picked eight or nine pieces from the rehearsal put them into two sets and then just let whatever happened happen."

Buddy is one of my favourite free improv, large group albums. The stars were truly aligned that night. Whether written, conducted or freely improvised, its eight tracks stretch from the eerily beautiful to the darkly humorous in a way that remains focused and concise. The album is, to use again MacDonald's own words, "a testament to the power of improvisation" with a wonderful sense of completeness and integrity. MacDonald is particularly fulsome in his praise for Jim O'Rourke.

"Later in the concert, Jim O'Rourke's amplifier was feeding back due to a dodgy connection but he uses that feedback to really great effect. He is a unique person. He is also one of the nicest musicians I've worked with. But he doesn't travel outside of Japan. He is very careful about what projects he commits to. I spoke to him about this. He said he doesn't want to release any CD unless it's absolutely saying something new. He is such a generous person and self-effacing as well. He kept asking, "Is this okay?' I said, 'Jim, what you're doing is marvellous. (laughing)"

Art of the duo...

MacDonald first met Alister Spence, when he visited Australia for "academic reasons." "I would play a couple of gigs with Alister and then every couple of years he would organise a European tour with his trio and I would join them as a guest," he tells me. "Gradually, the collaboration became more serious and we produced a duo CD -Stepping Between the Shadows (Rufus 2012) and we have a trio CD Sensaround -Isotropes (hellosQuare 2014) with Shoeb Ahmed on electronics. Shoeb is a really pivotal member of the group and we just toured recently."

Lloyd Swanton plays bass in Spence's trio and, given the connection with the Necks, perhaps the minimalist approach of Stepping Between the Shadows (Rufus 2012) should not surprise. Yet, that is also definitely one aspect of MacDonald's musical oeuvre and one which lends the album an elegiac, almost ambient quality that is very affecting. Unsurprisingly, the pair have plans for future partnerships, including a further big band project next year in Japan with Fujii and Tamura.

One of the tests of any horn player is their ability to play in duo situations. And MacDonald is a great duo player. One hears this in every such situation in which he finds himself. Listen to the duo albums, Flapjack (FMR 2006) and FR280 (Iorram 2008), with guitarist and GIO member Neil Davidson, who also features on Cities and another quintet date of note Aporias (Creative Sources 2005). Listen also to Delphinius & Lyra (Clean Feed 2007) with Gunter Baby Sommer.

In duo, there is no place for loud, big egos no place for self-aggrandizing. The equal expression of both musical personalities is essential, leading, at best, to a music that is more than the sum of its elements. In a way, it was what Freud saw as the difference between "primary and secondary narcissism." The former is part of normal, healthy development but the latter excludes the possibility of real emotional engagement with another person. It is just this point that MacDonald echoes when, for example, he says of Davidson, "The soundworlds and textures that Neil develops when we're playing together are wonderful to work within. I love working with Neil."

Increasingly, however, the most important such setting for MacDonald lies in his work with the great Marilyn Crispell. We may allow MacDonald a certain hyperbole, when he says, "I must admit this—and I don't want to sound grandiose -working with Marilyn has changed my life. She's an incredible person and an incredible musician." They met at Paul Bream's Festival 'On The Outside.' Bream's practice was to invite twelve musicians from around the world and then place them in different combinations over the course of the festival. One such combination involved MacDonald and Crispell. Even before they played together, MacDonald tells me that he felt an instant affinity with the pianist.

"Both our fathers had died recently and we had this conversation about our families and our connections and I just felt this rapport," MacDonald says. "I think Marilyn has this effect on people generally. She's such an open person and so warm and generous that I made this really close connection. We have been working together ever since. I've been lucky enough to tour with her a couple of times. Last year, I went out to the States and we played in Woodstock, New York and Baltimore. I don't want to sound overly dramatic but working with Marilyn has made me reflect on the key people that have influenced me."

For MacDonald, the most significant and personal influences—beyond those of the greats such as Monk or Coltrane—are those with musicians he has been able to play with and with whom he has been able to form some kind of musical bond. From Lol Coxhill, he gained the sense of freedom and liberation, that "anything was possible and you had permission to do anything musically." He describes playing, and talking, with Evan Parker—"an artist with such an amazing history, such an amazing technique but such a broad approach to the music" -as "almost an epiphanic moment" his career.

The third such influence has been Marilyn Crispell. By the time this article appears, MacDonald and Crispell will have finished a UK tour and, hopefully, will have a second CD in the can. Their first Parallel Moments (Babel 2014) was recorded at London's Vortex Jazz Club in 2010. The record's great strengths lie in both players' melodic gifts and ability to lend just the right emotional weight and drama to each improvisation. Some of their improvisations achieve an almost song-like structure at times. What emerges is more than a journey through sound but more a series of stories filled with different events and moods. It is more than empathy, more a melding of thoughts and emotions. As MacDonald notes,

"Again, I don't want to sound hyperbolic but she is one of the most important improvising piano players in the world. She really is quite spellbinding. You get the chance to play with somebody and you feel you are changed and that your perspective has been changed and your music has been taken to a new place as well. I feel really lucky that I've had the chance to work with people like that."

Notes on CDs:

Hung Drawn Quartet—Hey There You Hosers HDQ CD—This is a delightful sax quartet record full of warmth and humour. A crucial aspect of its success is the fact that these four musicians—MacDonald, Graeme Wilson (tenor), Allon Beauvoisin (baritone), Keith Edwards (alto)—are very fine rhythm players.

Nakatani/Fells/Nicholson/MacDonald/Davison—Aporias Creative Sources CD -Think Evan Parker's Electro-Acoustic Ensemble meets early AMM Music. Exceptional playing fused with highly creative use of sampling and electronic processing. Note in particular the contribution of guitarist Neil Davidson and drummer Tatsuya Nakatini.

George Burt-Raymond MacDonald Quintet -Hotel Dilettante Textile Records—With special guests Lol Coxhill and Sushil K. Dade on bass and theremin. This is something else! A truly hip, psychedelic jazz record. At several points, it sounds like George Burt is channelling Jerry Garcia. A simply astonishing group record.

George Burt-Raymond MacDonald Sextet—Day For A Reason Leo Records—Perhaps the most 'Scottish' of the Burt/MacDonald group records. Beautiful folk melodies meet jazz meet free improvisation and the winner is music. Fine drumming from Alan Cosker and a gorgeously weighted performance from guest Keith Tippett.

MacDonald/Fujii/Davidson/Tamura/Bancroft -Cities Nu-Jazz—Amazing that music this coherent can result from a coming together of musicians from opposite sides of the globe meeting personally and musically for the first time.

Raymond MacDonald International Big Band -Buddy Textile Records—Simply great big band free improvisation by a stellar ensemble.

Raymond McDonald & Marilyn Crispell -Parallel Moments Babel—Crispell is one of the greatest improvising pianists. Just ask Anthony Braxton! Yet, MacDonald matches her perfectly here. Beautifully sensitive and elegant but filled with intriguing twists and turns.

Alister Spence/Raymond MacDonald -Stepping Between The Shadows Rufus Records—At times quite minimalistic in the mood and soundscape it creates, this is another exceptional meeting of minds and talents.

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