There is an added thrill to listening to an album of which you have little expectation, by an artist that you have never heard of, and being thoroughly charmed by it from start to finish.
If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the music of Kirk MacDonald then I think some background would be helpful. He is a Canadian saxophone player who has built a solid reputation in his own country over the past 30 years. His last album, “Vista Obscura” features Harold Mabern and Pat LaBarbera and he has played or recorded with the likes of Eddie Henderson, Walter Bishop Jr, Kenny Wheeler and Bernie Senensky. This is McDonald’s 13th album as a bandleader, although he has appeared on countless dates as a sideman.
“Symmetry” was originally released in Canada in 2013, and after getting a good reception and even winning an Award, it is now being distributed more widely.
The line up for the album is Kirk MacDonald (tenor sax) Tom Harrell (trumpet and flugelhorn), Brian Dickinson (piano), Neil Swainson (bass) and Dennis Mackrel (drums). Tom Harrell’s name stands out as the most well-known in this group, but this album is very much an ensemble piece.
The title of the album, “Symmetry” is also its connecting theme. In determining the make up the album MacDonald selected compositions that captured a particular sense of balance, adhering to this idea of symmetry. This concept was not explored in a singular way, but could be present in melody, rhythm or harmony. For MacDonald it was just as important that this worked for the composer as it does for us, the listeners.
I have to admit that this concept didn’t seem particularly exciting or inspiring to me, but having listened to the album over and over for the past week I’ve come to the conclusion that that doesn’t really matter, it’s better to just let the music speak for itself.
First and foremost this is an album of fantastic compositions, all written by MacDonald, full of melody, eloquence and joie de vivre. The synergy between all the players is apparent from the outset; something that is all the more remarkable given that most of the tracks were recorded in one or two takes. I hesitate to describe this as mainstream jazz, only because I use this as a pejorative term most of the time. In this instance however it perfectly describes what I am listening to, jazz that is instantly accessible, expressive, friendly and uplifting.
The whole album seems to fly by. In the main this is down to the tempo, which is light and upbeat most of the time. Drums are rarely to the fore, although bass does get the occasional solo. None of the tracks have extended intros so you are in to the meat of the composition from the first few bars.
“Eleven”, which MacDonald describes as a “sort of a tribute to Bill Evans”, has a wonderfully lilting melody and caught my ear straightaway. MacDonald and Harrell tag team, taking off where the other ends. McDonald’s sax playing is rich in detail and soulful in its delivery. Harrell’s playing on this track, as in much of the album, reminds me of Freddie Hubbard, there’s a real warmth and depth to it.
I love the rising chord pattern in “Common Ground” which takes you spiraling upwards, before dumping you down at the end of the track.
It would be wrong to see this as the MacDonald and Harrell show though. Brian Dickinson’s contributions are significant throughout, full of fast flowing lines, as showcased in “Mackrel’s Groove”, “Brazil Like” and the aforementioned “Eleven”.
Overall this is a great set of tunes played well by all participants. Fortunately I won’t be so clueless the next time Kirk MacDonald releases an album.