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Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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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)"
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