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Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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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.

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