From 2018. Speaking on the phone from his home in Glasgow having returned recently from playing some gigs in Russia, Raymond MacDonald was breaking off in the early afternoon from writing a book. It’s a chapter on ‘‘improvisation, health and wellbeing,’’ the saxophonist-composer explains.¹
An Edinburgh University professor of music psychology and improvisation it was back in 2009 that he told The Psychologist that his hero from the world of psychology is, and you can see the affinity, another musician and academic, George Lewis, a professor of music at Columbia University explaining that his appeal is as ‘‘an inspiring communicator in both his books and lectures, award winning researcher… at the centre of American and European experimental music for 40 years.”
Working again with his academic colleague Graeme Wilson, their earlier work in a monumental edition co-edited by MacDonald includes the chapter ‘The Ear of the Beholder Improvisation, Ambiguity, and Social Contexts in the Constructions of Musical Identities’ in The Handbook of Musical Identities, published by Oxford University Press in 2017.
MacDonald explains that this new book will be more ‘‘overarching’’ and aims to extend and add to his previous research.
‘‘This is more discursive,’’ he says in a euphonious burr, the signal to his mobile at home in Hyndland, coming and going over the course of the 40 minute interview only paused by MacDonald breaking off to let his temporarily locked-out daughter in and for a redial from the marlbank landline to surprise, surprise, the much better mobile phone signal. (I swore that he inwardly chuckled as he deadpans concluding talk of the book for now hinting that his new tome will not be ‘‘a coffee table book.’’)
MacDonald’s connection with Marilyn Crispell (b. Philadelphia, 1947) began not on the east coast of the USA but in the north-east of England — in Newcastle.
Their collaboration was a chance thing, a bond quickly established. He speaks of immediately getting on well, ‘‘straight away’’, with the American who leapt to fame when she was a member of Anthony Braxton’s group, and long since through her own records become a significant and influential leader within free improvised music on her own records.
There was a connection with her, as he explains succinctly. ‘‘She is a wonderful warm personality.’’ These green shoots sprouted at the instigation of Paul Bream at the On the Outside festival in Newcastle who as an organiser had invited a dozen musicians from around the world to perform together in ad hoc formations.
‘‘Paul asked if we had any requests for groups,’’ Raymond explains.
‘‘I boldly said I would love to play a duo with Marilyn.’’
Told “we can make that happen” — it did; and proved not to be a one-off. The duo would later play in a number of other settings including the experimental Le Weekend festival in Stirling and at the Vortex in London. Then came the albums.
First, Parallel Moments in 2014; and now Songs Along The Way both issued by Oliver Weindling’s Babel Records updating what already was a story, or more accurately, stories worth spooling out in brand new instalments.
Songs… was recorded partly live, partly in the studio, and the chief difference, Raymond says, compared to the earlier record is that the new disc combines composed and free improv material. Parallel Moments therefore was completely improvised.
Before meeting Crispell as a listener himself Raymond knew her work within Anthony Braxton’s group and also the ‘‘John Coltrane’’ album, meaning I guess For Coltrane which was released on Leo Feigin’s Leo label in 1993.
Raymond’s interest in jazz and improvised music began with Conference of the Birds by bassist Dave Holland released in 1973. ‘‘I remember buying it in a sale of old vinyl in the Mitchell library in Glasgow.’’ MacDonald unlike some ‘free players’ does not have a problem with the word ‘‘jazz’’, quite the contrary, and says that he uses it in a general sense, not a specific style within a style. ‘‘I don’t run for the hills when I hear it,’’ he says, a smile in his voice.
Before the saxophone his earlier musical career included playing guitar in the mid-1980s Glasgow ‘‘post-Postcard label scene’’.
‘‘We were not famous or well known. We all met at school and there was a camaraderie.’’
Later, he started playing saxophone and on the new album chooses alto saxophone and soprano saxophone, the way he plays alto often blurs deep to cross the border to tenor sax territory. Think of the sound of Thomas Chapin (1957-1998) as an approximation, perhaps, it has that colour, blues connotation, and thickness.
In those distant indie days MacDonald following a different direction would record jazz from the radio on a one speaker cassette player. He had to hold the play and record buttons together to make the tape, he remembers. Nowadays guitar and rock long since set aside he plays live in congenial spots such as the Glad Café on Glasgow’s South Side and coming up he is back there in residence from 5 September for three days playing in duo with guitarist Jer Reid also of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO). “It is a really interesting venue with a bar/restaurant at the front,” he says and at the back a really nice intimate performance space. Kim and Joe are really supportive – Joe is a musician himself.’’
The GIO began at the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts) during the Free Radicals festival curated by Evan Parker and encouraged by Graham McKenzie who is now artistic director of the renowned Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in west Yorkshire. The GIO will hold the latest running of their festival to be held once again on homeground in Glasgow in late-November this year, MacDonald says.
Moving in a roundabout way towards a discussion of method and theory at least on my part Raymond draws distinctions between playing music and studying it explaining that when you are on stage you are ‘‘in the moment” listening as closely as you can. “For me a lot is about relating to the people around you whether emotionally or socially and that requires you to be in the moment, present.
“It is the opposite of the academic which is more objective, a distanced and critical overview. When you improvise you bring all your experiences and you are striving for an altered consciousness.’’
Yes, he agrees that the process is a ‘‘blank slate’’ or tabula rasa approach in some respects because the act is new each time yet qualifies his assertion emphasising that it ‘‘would be just not possible to just bring your own techniques each time you play.’’
Songs Along the Way he agrees – ‘‘absolutely a great way of thinking about it” – resembles a conversation. On the liminal opener, ‘All the Songs Above Your Head’ this is neither free improv nor is it a conventional treatment of a standard. He sees the album as drawing on a reservoir of melodies that ‘‘we could use and combine’’. Some he and the pianist wrote jointly, some separately. Marilyn wrote for instance the fourth track ‘Beach at Newquay’ about the popular Cornish town where Raymond’s sister has an art gallery and informal performance space and where the duo plan to play again in the future.
MacDonald pours cold water on my mooted folk angle provenance to his sound and while his frequent collaborator George Burt has more of a folk background he himself has not been so involved.
Easy pick of the new album for me is ‘We Are Going,’ which is a beauty. Crispell goes all bluesy gospelly and there is certainly a South African-type direction. He and Crispell had been in the studio and played live at the Vortex the week after Nelson Mandela died in late-2013 and so the track is a dedication to the great statesman. SG
¹ Working title: “The Art of Becoming: How Group Improvisation Works.”