It has been my contention that the most valuable viewpoints come from those who do. Thus, it’s logical to assume that any artist who is surviving in this field, and doing it with success, is doing something right. The energies we all put into our craft; The years of apprenticeship and the intense commitment to the horn, and the pure love of playing it are paramount to the art form. This section of my D’Addario Woodwinds Blogs by Tim Price, to all intents and purposes is a sort of portable omnibus of sax / woodwind creations. Musically, verbally and spiritually. The music these players create and talk about is a privilege to be a part of. The music always has an infinite history and fertility, inexhaustible vitality, and at the same time, a seductive power of temptation – which inspires all of us who play – and offers the open-ended invitation to create as much as we can. The results, the waiting, the practicing at all hours, the talking of the music and constant study gives the music a breath of spirit, endless in motion and evolution.
This weeks blog features a player whom I respect highly- Marshall McDonald. This is a player who I would call a master artist who’s woodwind and saxophone playing, history speak for themselves. Face it, the street cred Marshall has is inspiring. Marshall began his tenure with The Count Basie Orchestra under saxophonist Danny Turner in 1994 and now holds down the Lead Alto chair famously held by the great Marshal Royal. Marshall has performed concerts and jazz festivals world wide with the orchestra directed by Frank Foster, Grover Mitchell, and Bill Hughes and Dennis Mackrel.
Marshall’s unique ability to play all of the saxophones, clarinet and flute has led to recordings and world tours with The Lionel Hampton Orchestra, Paquito D’Rivera and the United Nation Orchestra, Frank Foster and The Loud Minority Big Band, The Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Orchestra, The Illinois Jacquet Big Band, The Duke Ellington Orchestra and Charli Persip and Supersound. Marshall has played every sax chair except baritone in the Basie Band, he has played every chair including baritone sax in the Lionel Hampton Band, and played and recorded on alto, tenor and baritone sax with Paquito D’Rivera, and was often found switching from the Lead Alto chair of the Charli Persip band to the Tenor chair when needed.
Marshall has also performed with The Bobby Caldwell Orchestra as the opening act for Vanessa Williams. McDonald has performed in Broadway shows, including clarinet in JELLY’S LAST JAM, Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax, Clarinet and Flute in the 1998 production of STREETCORNER SYMPHONY and in 1999 he performed on stage in the musical KAT AND THE KINGS. He was an orchestra member of THE MEETIN’ by Pamela Baskin-Watson and Bobby Watson.
In addition, Marshall has played woodwinds behind performers such as Stephanie Mills, Aretha Franklin, Melba Moore, The Four Tops, The Temptations, Little Anthony and the Imperials, Johnny Mathis, Frankie Avalon, The Dells, and Manhattan Transfer.
1- How have the last few years of your life affected your current music?
The last few years have greatly affected my playing and music. My wife has had a profound effect on my playing and my approach to music, and we also have been spending a great deal of time in Japan, which has also had an influence on my music choices. I’ve begun to remember why I wanted to play music in the first place. For the joy and the fun! I want to tell a story when I play a solo, make people feel something, bring the experience of life onto the stage with me. I play a feature ballad with the Basie band, one that Bobby Plater originally played, Soft as Velvet, my approach to it has completely changed. I want to tell my story, and when I play Soft As Velvet on stage, I think that I’m playing it for my wife, it’s her favorite song! First, I don’t want to play too loud, as Phil Woods once said, he would rather people lean into the stage to hear, than move back into their seats from the loudness of it. And I’m singing through the horn. Years ago, I always liked the players who sang with their horn, Charlie Parker, Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Cannonball and the pop cats like David Sanborn. Sanborn loved Hank Crawford. A player should be familiar with the lyrics of the tune. There’s a great solo by Michael Brecker on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, I love his lyrical singing approach to the solo. Brings it all home, you dig?
2. How did you choose to play the saxophone, and what players influenced you early on?
I started out at age 9 studying classical Clarinet. I had private lessons, and I was going through Klose and Rose studies, and in a few years I was playing the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. But some time when I was young, although my father listened to Classical music, and he also played piano himself, he had a tape of Louis Armstrong, I think the recording of Hello, Dolly and Mack the Knife. I heard that and I was floored! Man, I think it was Barney Bigard playing clarinet. And found such joy in this recording, I played it all the time, it was an 8-Track tape, who remembers those? And Louis was singing, and he was playing and the clarinet playing just knocked me out. Then my mom got me a record of Pete Fountain. So I asked my Pop to get me a saxophone so I could play in the school jazz band, honestly he wasn’t thrilled but he did it! My teacher started teaching me how to play the alto, and then at school the next year I found a record in the music library. This guy named Charlie Parker “Live at Massey Hall”. I took that home, and played that on my turntable every single night while I lay in bed!! I had no idea what was going on, but I knew I liked it! It was absolutely amazing, I had never heard anything like that! After that, a guy from college came to our school to do a jazz clinic, and he played me a record by David Sanborn, the one called Sanborn. Man, I dug that. I tried to also copy stuff off that record. The sax major from college was the first guy to show me some chords and gave me something to play on a solo. In my senior year of High School I went to see David Sanborn in concert in Pittsburgh, it was Hiram Bullock, Will Lee, Steve Jordan, Rosalinda de Leon-the band was killin! When I saw that, I knew I wanted to be a performer. After that my next real jazz teacher was Mark Kirk, protege of Phil Woods who told me to leave the Charlie Parker Omnibook at home, that reading solos was useless, that I needed to learn the piano, and to learn 4 scale patterns (that had the notes numbered and told me to think in numbers) that Phil taught his students. That took years of study from that first lesson. At that time, I listened to a variety of music from Earth, Wind and Fire, Chicago, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Charlie Parker, Arthur Blythe, Jackie McClean, Weather Report, Bill Chase, Maynard Ferguson, Count Basie, John Coltrane et al. My biggest influence and favorite player was by far Charlie Parker. All the other cats were into Cannonball at that time, I was a throwback, I loved Charlie Parker. I also had a bunch of Michael Brecker recordings, I later got to meet Mike while on the road with Basie and speak with him on the phone. He told me about his practice habits, playing patterns in 12 keys, in every interval he could think of, of the way he wrote them all down. Much like what George Coleman talked about . Funny, Mike said he was listening to Stan Getz at the time,and wished he could play less notes like Stan! Man, dig that. And I love Stan Getz too, one of my favorites. Bob Berg, Bob Mintzer, Bergonzi, the post Trane cats, I lend an ear to them too.
Nathan Davis told me to learn all the saxophones, my first job with Lionel Hampton was on baritone sax. Nathan had me switch from Lead Alto and play bari a little while at Pitt. He also gave me a tenor and soprano and said learn the differences. Each horn is a voice. I would only listen to tenor players while practicing tenor, and I transcribed and wrote out lots of tenor solos. Tenor has become my favorite voice. John Williams, the great Basie bari player once told me, I was the only guy he knew who played 4 of the sax chairs in the Basie band, and all of the sax chairs in the Ellington band! You have to be versatile!
I grew up in Pittsburgh so while I was at University of Pittsburgh, I was studying with Nathan Davis, and listened to Eric Kloss and Kenny Blake in town. There were some great young players there, trombonist Frank Mallah, who called Charlie Parker, The Big Birdie. He told me just transcribe solos and listen to The Big Birdie!
3. At this point in life – What inspires you musically?
I still enjoy a large variety of music, from Prince to Miles to Vincent Herring, to Stan Getz, and I love lyrics of good songs, I love the love songs with a story and lyrics. I like pop music that has a love ballad to it, I think people like these songs because they tell a story about their lives. And it’s romantic. I think most great music has some romance in it. My favorite songs are those with beautiful lyrics. And then when I play a ballad or play a tune, or play Lead Alto, I want to be singing, it should sing. That’s what inspires me now, to play some music that people will enjoy, I don’t want to try to impress the musicians with my hippest licks in 12 keys, I’ve been listening to the music that lasts. Last forever. Like Frank Sinatra. Miles Davis recordings. Bird. Sonny Rollins. The great Blue Note Record era. This music reaches out to the listener. I’m inspired to try to play some music now that the listener will tap their foot and leave with some joy in their heart!
4. Your choice of notes is really inspiring- talk about how you arrive at this kind of destination as an artist. What are you thinking about in terms of your solos, and agenda.
Well, I’m coming out of the post-bop school, and my concept is built on change playing from my few lessons from Mark Kirk, and then my studies with George Coleman. George is the cat who really showed me the foundation on how to hear and to play through changes. Bebop is a craft and a study, and one needs to internalize the progressions and language in order to play through them without thinking. Much like talking. I really think about playing through the tune and finding the pretty notes with some nice tension and release. One of my favorite players from the Basie Band is Kenny Hing. Kenny Hing is a bebop, melodic change player. He used to chomp through some Rhythm changes! I love that! I also want to keep the blues in my playing, and I want to choose interesting notes. I model myself after certain great jazz musicians. Sonny Stitt, his logic and passion. One of my favorite Coltrane solos is, Blues To You. I transcribed and wrote out 28 choruses of that solo. I also transcribed Trane’s solo on Giant Steps for myself, sure you can buy a transcription to read, but you don’t learn ANYTHING that way. The learning is training your ear to hear it as it goes by and then write it down! I love the way David Sanborn played a tune called “Smile” on one of his early records. Grover Washington always brought joy to the listener, and it was some funky playing at the same time. Almost everything Miles plays I try to emulate. I can listen to Sonny Rollins every day. So I want some wit, some intellectualism, some logic, some blues, I want my solos to encompass the broad spectrum of life. Last of all my playing should be influenced by my life and my journey.
5. Talk about some projects coming up in your future, ideas and agendas. Also thank you for doing this- it’s a total pleasure.
The future is wide open! I’m going be dividing my time between Tokyo and New York City these days! Japan loves American jazz music, in fact people all over this planet love this music, this American Music. American Classical Music as Dizzy said. We all should know who Count Basie was, what Duke Ellington did, how Charlie Parker changed the course of music worldwide! We have to educate folks! I endorse Yamaha Woodwinds, and along with D’Addario Woodwinds and Silverstein Ligatures, we’ve started booking Jazz Clinics in Japan, we had a great big band clinic at Yamano Music, and coming up I have two different Big Band Clinics in Osaka and then later this year I will be doing another clinic at Yamano Music, and be involved in the Yamano Big Band Contest in Tokyo. I will be doing more Jazz Master Classes in the States and Japan in the future, starting a Skype Music Lesson business, taking on private students, working on two music books, I’m doing some composing, planning on making a recording of originals, I’m going to work Jazz Clubs in Tokyo, and continue to tour the world, perform in America, and New York City.