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Laura Macdonald - two for the road on the record

 

Saxophonist Laura Macdonald tells a story about recording her new Duets album with New York-based pianist David Berkman that will ring bells with those who remember singer Carol Kidd’s emergence on Linn Records.

Back in 1984, Kidd and her trio went into Castlesound studio on the outskirts of Edinburgh and essentially set up and played as if it was a gig, and the recording engineer, used to rock bands taking rather longer to produce the finished article, was astonished that singer and musicians could deliver performances of such quality one after the other.

Fast forward thirty years and Macdonald and Berkman caused a similar reaction in Gorbals Sound, Glasgow’s high-end recording facility.

“We spent some time experimenting with mic positions to get the sound the way we wanted it,” says Macdonald who, as with Kidd, has no little onstage experience and has also made two albums under her own name and a joint effort with Swedish drummer Martina Almgren. “But once we started playing, it was like we were playing to an audience. The guys in the studio were amazed that we could make an album in a day. But that was definitely the way to work for us because things happened spontaneously in the music – the sort of things that normally happen on a gig and disappear into the ether – and we were able to capture them. We had a break between tunes but they were all recorded in one take.”

Duets marks an important stage in Ayrshire-born Macdonald’s career and she and Berkman will launch it at London Jazz Festival on November 15 before playing a three-date Scottish tour. Having emerged with Strathclyde Youth Jazz Orchestra, studied at Berklee College of Music and completed various projects with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and drummers Tom Bancroft and the aforementioned Almgren, as well as playing with her own groups, the saxophonist took stock four years ago when her first child, Niamh, was born.

“I wanted to concentrate on composition and although I always enjoy playing, I decided to be a bit more selective and not just take every gig going, which is always tempting when you’re freelance,” she says.  “At the same time, I didn’t want to stop teaching (she’s an instrumental instructor for South Lanarkshire and leads the weekly jazz workshops at the Tolbooth in Stirling) because I’m very pro music education in schools. It’s a very important part of what I do and I love working with South Lanarkshire because they’re incredibly supportive of music and of jazz as an artform.”

Composing with two young children at home (Rory arrived a year after his sister) can have its challenges, especially when cartoon soundtracks infiltrate mum’s headphones as she’s working and she has to make sure no Disney tunes sneak into her own pieces. The Paul Hamlyn Composition Award that Macdonald won in 2012 and her recent success with her Commonwealth Suite, premiered at Glasgow Jazz Festival, suggest that she’s coped and now that the children are less likely to be disturbed by mum practising, she’s keen to reassert herself as a player. Thus her renewed partnership with Berkman.

“We’ve played together quite a lot over the years,” says Macdonald. “David’s played in groups I’ve put together for Edinburgh Jazz Festival and I was lucky enough to play in his New York group a few years ago. But the duo actually started as a last minute call to fill in at the Hub in Edinburgh. We literally had five minutes to choose tunes, choose keys and … go! And we loved it. We got another chance at Lockerbie Jazz Festival later and when I was thinking about making a new CD, I thought it would be great to work with David again because he has this wealth of jazz history in his playing.”

Listing the significant musicians on Berkman’s CV would use up the space allocated to this article but as well as accompanying great instrumentalists such as saxophone legend Sonny Stitt and trumpeter Tom Harrell, he has experience as musical director for singers including Jane Monheit and this suits Macdonald perfectly.

“When I was setting out as a saxophonist I always practised with the singers’ version of the Real Book (the jazz musician’s jam session Bible) rather than the saxophone version,” she says. “Because before I played a note, I wanted to know what the song was about. That’s crucial for me and David’s the same. We communicated by email – I’d send suggestions and half a day later he’d come back saying, ‘Yes, but what about these’ – until we agreed on a repertoire that’s all old romantic standards, things like It Could Happen to You and My Romance. They’ve all been played so many times before but working with someone like David you hear new ways of playing them every time.”

Laura Macdonald and David Berkman play Tolbooth, Stirling on Wednesday, November 19; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday 20; City Halls, Glasgow, Friday 21.

Scottish Saxophonist Laura Macdonald and New York pianist David Berkman mark the release of their new Duets album with a EFG London Jazz Festival launch and a series of Scottish gigs including the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on Thursday, November 20.

The two musicians, who have worked together in various line-ups since appearing in a band Macdonald formed for an Edinburgh Jazz Festival concert a few years ago, first played as a duo when they were asked to fill an hour’s slot in the festival’s programme at five minutes’ notice.

They had more preparation this time and exchanged emails with ideas and suggestions until they settled on a selection of romantic standards, including It Could Happen to You and My Romance.

The album was recorded, with trumpeter Ryan Quigley producing, at Gorbals Sound in Glasgow, where the studio engineers, who are used to rock musicians working at a more leisurely pace, were surprised that Macdonald and Berkman could record an album in one day.

“We spent some time sorting out microphone positions,” says Macdonald.  “Once we started playing, though, it was like we were playing to an audience. The guys in the studio were amazed. But that was definitely the way to work for us because things happened spontaneously in the music – the sort of things that normally happen on a gig and disappear into the ether – and we were able to capture them. We had a break between tunes but they were all recorded in one take.”

Macdonald, who has previously released two albums of her own and one with the group she co-leads with Swedish drummer Martina Almgren as well as working extensively with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, saxophonist Donny McAslin and drummer Tom Bancroft, is hoping that the new album will lead to further performances with Berkman, possibly involving a trip to the U.S. to play on his home territory.

“I always enjoy working with David,” she says. “He has this great sense of jazz history in his playing, having worked with so many people including Sonny Stitt and Tom Harrell, and like me, he likes to know what a song is about before he plays it. The standards on the album have all been played so many times before but working with someone like David you hear new ways of playing them every time.”

Laura Macdonald and David Berkman play Tolbooth, Stirling on Wednesday, November 19; Blue Lamp, Aberdeen, Thursday 20; City Halls, Glasgow, Friday 21.

 

From The Herald, November 11, 2014.