Following two splendid albums as leader of his own big band (Deep Shadows, Family Suite for Large Jazz Orchestra), Toronto-based saxophonist / educator Kirk MacDonald has returned to a small-group format for Symmetry, the thirteenth recording on which his name has been listed atop the marquee. In this case, however, any member of MacDonald's quintet could have easily laid claim to the honor, as every one is an all-star in his own right, from the renowned trumpeter Tom Harrell, who shares the front line, to the exemplary rhythm section comprised of pianist Brian Dickinson, bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Dennis Mackrel.
Granted, assembling five world-class musicians in a studio to record doesn't always pay dividends. Here, however, the idea seems truly inspired, thanks in part to their easygoing rapport and in even larger measure to MacDonald's admirable compositions and arrangements, which bring out the best his colleagues have to offer. In the liner notes, MacDonald writes that he was searching for "beauty as a result of balance or harmonious arrangement." Mission accomplished, starting with the shapely title selection and continuing through the nimble finale, "Bop Zone." MacDonald later amplifies the remark, pointing out the genesis and form of each arrangement, but that is best left for musicologists to read and assimilate. Suffice to say that MacDonald has readily achieved his purpose.
"Bop Zone" is especially well-suited to MacDonald whose robust, darting tenor solos bring to mind such bop-era (and later) flame-throwers as Hank Mobley, Johnny Griffin, Teddy Edwards, George Coleman, Harold Land and Charlie Rouse, among others, not to mention such contemporaries as Lew Tabackin, Don Menza, Joe Lovano and Canada's own Pat LaBarbera. As for Harrell, he is as always a model of tastefulness and consistency on trumpet or flugel, pouring years of invaluable discipline and experience into every persuasive solo. Dickinson and Swainson make the most of their moments in the sun (each is bright and perceptive whether out front or lending support), while Mackrel toils earnestly to help keep the rhythm sharp and steady. Even though no one is likely to end the day humming any of MacDonald's themes, all are well-honed and consistently pleasing.
In sum, Symmetry more than lives up to its eurythmic name: a burnished and cohesive group endeavor whose whole is actually greater than its parts. Definitely worth checking out.
Symmetry; Eleven; Common Ground; Mackrel’s Groove; Shadows; Brazil Like; Labyrinth; Greenwich Time; Contemplation; Bop Zone.
Kirk MacDonald: leader, composer, arranger, tenor saxophone; Tom Harrell: trumpet, flugelhorn; Brian Dickinson: piano; Neil Swainson: bass; Dennis Mackrel: drums.
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