Earl MacDonald - Open Borders

Label/Year: Death Defying Records, 2017

Lineup – Earl MacDonald: piano; Kris Allen: alto saxophone; Wayne Escoffery: tenor saxophone; Lauren Sevain: baritone saxophone; Jeffrey Holmes: trumpet; Josh Evans: trumpet; Alex Gertner: French horn; Sara Jacovino: trombone; Henry Lugo: bass; Ben Bilello: drums + guests Atla DeChamplain: vocals; Ricardo Monzon: percussion.


Pianist, composer, arranger, conductor, and educator Earl MacDonald, a native of Winnipeg, Canada, leads a 10-piece ensemble on his new album Open Boarders. Besides original material, his fourth outing as a leader also includes carefully selected tunes authored by both acclaimed and not so known musicians, as well as celebrated jazz standards.

Dig In Buddy”, composed by Alberta’s drummer Tyler Hornby, bursts with a compelling arrangement sparkled by fantastic rhythmic accentuations and magnifying unisons, at the same time that favors individual extemporizations selected from the bountiful horn section. Initially, tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery and trombonist Sara Jacovino collide for a brief period, but then split, alternating every two, and then four, bars of improvised statements. Josh Evans made a pompous entrance evoking a noticeable phrase from Freddie Hubbard on Art Blakey’s version of “Moanin”, and there was still space for drummer Bern Bilello appear, well backed by opportune horn fills.

Sordid Sort of Fellow” offers up the swinging verve from the 60s as it carries much of that bop feel in his arms. Again, Evans quotes recognizable phrases from other times while improvising with Hubbard-esque lucidity. MacDonald also stands out with a two-hand demonstration on how to groove within the harmony.

Even thickened with powerful layers of sound, Jackie McLean’s “Appointment in Ghana” evinces a legitimate lightness that is put to the test during Lauren Sevian’s opulent baritone solo. She is momentarily left alone with the drums for a further kicking effect.

While “Miles Apart” expresses the cool-toned qualities of a ballad that finishes with a perhaps too abrupt fade out, both “Smoke and Mirrors” and Jerrold Dubyk’s “Catch of the Day” are dazzling, shapeshifting pieces pushed forward by the highly coordinated actions of the band. However, if the former displays multiple transitions in rhythm (funky beats with bass grooves, a vainglorious march brought up by snare eruptions, a rock flow adorned with horn unisons and counterpoint, and a final trumpet-piano poem in the form of gentle prayer), the latter assumes a metamorphic, daring posture when alternating time signatures.
After casting a strong Latin spell with the percussive “Dolphy Dance”, which starts as a ternary fantasia but veers into a 4/4 salsa big band, the album closes with the popular “East of the Sun”, completely transformed by the unique vocal touch of guest singer Atla DeChamplain and piqued by Kris Allen’s striking solo on top of punchy chords emanated from the Fender Rhodes.

Diversity, dynamism, and equilibrium are fundamental aspects in Earl MacDonald’s music making. These eleven stylishly orchestrated pieces are a pure reflection of his musical capabilities.

       Grade  A-

       Grade A-

Favorite Tracks:
01 - Dig In Buddy ► 07 - Smoke and Mirrors ► 08 - Catch of the Day