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Raymond MacDonald: Man with Two Brains

Duncan Heining By

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"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.

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