Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra – Common Ground – Addo

Kirk MacDonald Jazz Orchestra – Common Ground [TrackList follows]  – Addo AJR032 (2 CDs), 91:04 ****:

This is a band that has an expressive command of some very challenging material.

It doesn’t seem to be all that long ago, although perhaps it was, there were a number of significant jazz orchestras in Canada including Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, Dave McMurdo’s Jazz Orchestra both in Toronto, Vic Vogel’s Le Jazz Big Band in Montreal and Tommy Banks Big Band in Edmonton. With changing times, fashion, and economics it is a challenge to maintain a jazz orchestra on a consistent basis. Kudos go to Kirk MacDonald for keeping this formation together for their third recording Common Ground.

All of the compositions on this release were written by Kirk MacDonald with arrangements by trumpeter Joe Sullivan. Although Sullivan was born in Ontario, he has worked and lived for the better part of his career in Montréal. He is currently an Associate Professor at McGill University where he directs the University’s Jazz  Orchestra as well as playing in his own sextet ad big band.

Sullivan’s arrangements of MacDonald’s compositions are lengthy affairs in the manner of tone poems, with multilayered harmonics and structures, that make for challenging listening, but not very hummable material. The opening track is “Labyrinth” and as the name implies, the number twists and turns with a restive exploratory attack. MacDonald offers a lengthy solo on tenor sax punched along by drummer Barry Romberg.

The title track “Common Ground” opens with some off-kilter phrasing which segues into a fulfilling solo from altoist P. J.  Perry who is one of Canada’s leading exponents on this instrument. As the number swings along, tenor saxophonist Pat Labarbera stretches out in Coltranesque style. Labarbera spent several years with the Buddy Rich band in the 1960s and so knows a thing or two about playing in a precise and confident manner. The balance of the compositions on CD1, spin out in the same style and complexity in MacDonald’s communicative perspective of jazz.

There are only three compositions on CD2 but that still provides about 35 minutes of music. MacDonald’s compositional musings are filled with oblique excursions and dissonances as evidenced by the opening phrases on “You See But You Don’t Hear”. The balance of the number is no less kinetic with tenor saxophonist Labarbera providing an authoritative solo. “Kirk’s Blues” is a blues in name only as it does not come close to exhibiting a traditional blues structure although it is propelled by some intricate drumming from Barry Romberg. Trumpeter Brian O’Kane offers a bristling solo as does trombonist Terry Promane. Bassist Neil Swainson delivers a rock steady beat throughout the number.

This is a band that has an expressive command of some very challenging material that is harmonically and stylistically complex.

CD1: Labyrinth; Common Ground; Symmetry; The Power Of Four; Shadows
CD2: You See But You Don’t Hear; Kirk’s Blues; Vanda Justina

—Pierre Giroux

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