Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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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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