“The experiences and training I had at UNT have proved themselves indispensable in the post-graduation world of the music business. My teachers explained to me what was valued by contractors in the business, and prepared me for my time in New York City.”
–Brett McDonald on the University of North Texas Jazz program.
Where were you born?
McDonald: I was born in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and lived there most of my life. My parents were
from the surrounding rural areas and met while living and working in Calgary.
Where do you live?
McDonald: Currently I’m technically homeless - I’ve been a touring musician since December, but I like to say that I live in New York City. That’s where all my possessions are in storage and where I spent the few months before I left for tour.
What were you like at school?
McDonald: School was an interesting time for me, but has definitely been very valuable in developing my personality. In grade school I was generally quite introverted and shy, though all of those barriers came down in performance. Most of the time I kept to myself because I enjoyed reading non-fiction books, practicing and listening to music. My favourite thing to do was pretty hilarious for a high schooler - my other friends would look forward to Friday nights as an opportunity to be social whereas I would want to watch the CBC’s (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) documentary showcase “The Passionate Eye”. It would show award winning documentaries from all over the world, and I found it all fascinating. I still had my social activities - I was actively involved in playing competitive soccer, badminton - many sports really.
University was a sharp shock for me. I had never intended on choosing music as a career - I had planned on going to the University of Alberta in Edmonton for Pharmacology - the science of how pharmaceutical drugs interact with the body. In my mind music was only a hobby, and pharmacology gave me an opportunity to combine my talents in my favourite subjects: Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology. I sent off my audition tapes to The University of North Texas on a whim fully expecting to be rejected. In my mind, UNT was this glass tower of jazz education, I could view from the outside but I would never get accepted - luckily for me, I was. My academics were strong enough that I received a large scholarship and suddenly this dream became a reality. Going to school in Texas was then cheaper than my subsidized education in Canada, and my parents and I decided that I really had no choice - I must go pursue this dream.
Needless to say, my musical education up to that point didn’t prepare me to compete against 120 saxophonists for 45 spots, and initially for a few weeks I didn’t even place in an ensemble. It was a dark time that I look back on fondly now - even though it isn’t fun to relive. Starting from the bottom has made me appreciate every little thing that I’ve worked for, and my whole post-secondary education, including graduate school has been geared towards growing up and away the shy kid who shut himself out from the world - my musical and interpersonal experience from university has been responsible for that transformation.
How did you get into making music?
McDonald: My parents and grandparents all casually played musical instruments - my Mom and Grandmother played piano, my father played piano and trumpet. By the time I started playing piano when I was 7 years old my brother had already started playing the trumpet. I actually remember the first time I learned a song. I wanted to surprise my brother, Reid, on his 10th birthday, so I decided that I was going to learn how to play Happy Birthday on the piano. I figured it out by ear (with a pinch of help from Dad) and played it for him at his party for Reid and all of his friends. I vaguely remember being volun-told into piano lessons a few weeks afterwards. I hated the lessons and eventually quit in the 5th grade after completing nearly half of the Royal Conservatory piano curriculum. It is one of those frustrating decisions that I made in youthful ignorance of my future, but at least the foundation was there for future musical development. At the time, I was so bored by the practice of scales, and since music was a hobby at the time, not the media of creative expression it is now, I was only into it for fun! Practicing monotonously for hours on the same patterns was as mind-numbing as the repetitive math problems I was assigned at school.
What instruments do you play?
McDonald: I play several instruments. As a woodwind performer I play saxophones, flutes and clarinets. I have since rekindled my interest in the piano, though it isn’t an instrument I regularly perform on. I’ve dabbled in brass instruments in grade school, playing trumpet and trombone, and a little bit of drums. I’m of the belief that having a fundamental understanding of all the instruments, even if it is elementary, is crucial for performing, directing and composing effectively. There are some things that are particularly tricky to play on a saxophone, for example, that are easy to play on a piano or guitar. If I want to have my music performed well, I need to prepare it in a manner that makes it as easy as possible for other artists to recreate.
Recently, I’ve been exploring the computer as an effective instrument. I’ve been working with Ableton Live, a MIDI sequencer, to learn about all the options available for music making. Electronic music comes with it’s own aesthetics, which in my opinion was born less out of the active attempt to formulate a “genre”, but the limits and boundaries of the instruments used. For example, making repetitive beats and samples is really easy, as well as combining different phrase lengths, key centers and new textures previously unheard (the womp-womp-womp of dubstep, for example, is a creative use of a dynamic range compressor and an effect called side-chaining, which uses the signal from another track as a type of switch). Some of these things are intuitive and simple to create in the computer, but are extraordinarily difficult to perform with live musicians and instruments. I find it fascinating just to explore!
Do you write your own music?
McDonald: Absolutely. I feel like writing, composing and performing your own music is a key to developing yourself as an artist. Not only do you get a familiarity with basically all of the musical principles, you get to play with what is effective. When you are at the helm, you can claim complete ownership over the final product. A producer, guide, or mentor may make suggestions, but ultimately you took the time to manifest any of those ideas. That kind of propriety over the musical decisions is important and makes you unique - because no one will ever make the same decisions as you at the same time, in the same order.
Mostly, I’ve written for jazz ensembles - instrumental music from duos to full 18 piece big band. Nearly all the recognition I’ve gotten has been for my big band writing. A piece of mine, “The Beat In Progress” received a composition prize from the Jazz Education Network, as well as an ASCAP Young Jazz Composer’s Award. The appeal of big band for me has been the dynamic range and textural diversity. My goal with writing music is to induce specific sensations, mostly frisson and autosomal sensory meridian response (ASMR), and big band thus far has been the instrumentation that can really get that response from me most consistently.
Writing is also a very engaging activity, it uses up all of your musical, psychological and intellectual sensibilities. Whether you are planning out the form of the tune, the harmony, the dynamic contour or the establishment and deviation of expectations, you must have developed a keen intuition for how people will respond emotionally to the effects you use, as well as what must be done to prepare any sort of craft-based technical construct into a musical “moment” that causes goosebumps. There’s lots of trial and error and hair pulling, but it is absolutely worth it. If you do it right, and do it for yourself, every time you hear your own music played at a high level, you can initiate those euphoric feelings - after all, who knows better on how to trigger those responses in yourself, than yourself?
Who have you worked with production wise?
McDonald: I’ve only been out of school around 10 months at this point, so most of my work has been worked with my teachers at various schools. At Rutgers University I worked with Conrad Herwig, Ralph Bowen, Victor Lewis, Mark Gross, Frank Lacy, Joe Magnarelli, Charles Tolliver, Stanley Cowell. I also started meeting some of the best that New York City has to offer: performing in a masterclass for Chris Potter, performing in Jazz Ensemble with Lead Trumpet phenom Tanya Darby, studying Jazz Historiography with the Coltrane historian Lewis Porter. Each and every one of these people have influenced me in ways that I struggle to put words to. A stand out from my time at Rutgers is definitely Ralph Bowen, who isn’t the most well known musician outside of the upper echelon of players, but has to be the most knowledgeable persons I have ever met. He was able to make every lesson engaging and rewarding, and has been a huge inspiration.
At UNT, I was able to work with Brad Leali, Jim Riggs, Jay Saunders, Paris Rutherford, Steve Wiest, Stefan Karlsson, Lynn Seaton, Mike Steinel. A veritable stable of thoroughbred pedagogues. Each one has their own specific influences and pushed me in different directions, which was one of the reasons I actively sought out an experience like UNT, where my focus would be on growth and diversifying my abilities. A stand out, however, has to be Paris Rutherford, and his adjunct professor at the time, Akira Sato. They were the ones that got me writing, and at just the right time! I probably would have in my junior year without their guidance and encouragement. Developing an individual voice as a writer was so intuitive under their direction.
How would you describe your sound?
McDonald: An artist’s sound is something that is really difficult to pin down, in my opinion - especially when referring to myself. Personally, I think sound is defined by the expressive limits of the artist at the time of creation, which a lot of times is reflective mostly of the expressive range of the artist as well as the environment the work is created in. Another way to say that is an artist’s voice is defined by their humanistic imperfections. For me, there are countless limitations that I’m constantly working on, and most of them fall into a technical category that may be difficult to describe to the lay-person.
I can say that my writing tends to fall in contemporary sounding categories, as I try to blend in as many components of modern music as possible. Electronic genres like Jungle and Drum’n’bass and the quality of fast paced, heart thumping drive is definitely present in my music, but then at other times, sometimes the same time, we have the textural colour palate of orchestrators like Maria Schneider, Percy Grainger etc - evocative of deep seated expressions. My best analogue is to describe a diverse artist or group, my example being Queen. How does that group sound? They perform in countless different styles, with hits stemming from Rap, Swing, Bossa Nova, Country - countless genres really.
If I had to define my voice within the limits of words, I would say that it is reflective of human expression, especially of the age. There is a very unsettling quality to the harmony I use, which vastly differs in quality to the largely singable and “happy” melodies that I write. The whole mixture of our prejudices, preconceptions and definitions of what makes a sad song, a happy song, a weird song is fascinating to me and reminiscent of Cole Porter and Antonio Carlos Jobim- who are famous among musicians for these contradictions.
What are your primary musical influences?
McDonald: This is tough to describe - the components of what have gone into what I currently perform are primarily saxophonists and jazz musicians. Michael Brecker was an enormous influence, as was the obvious Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. Cannonball Adderley, Kenny Garrett, Paul Desmond, Sonny Stitt, Dick Oatts, Earl Bostic, Art Pepper, Jan Garbarek, Rick Margitza, Bob Berg, Bob Mintzer. Each has their own aesthetic that can be learned and imitated, but never copied. The process was important because it developed my aesthetic sensibilities for different goals - whether it be a lighter sound, h
heftier sound, harmonically dense, lyrical, rhythmic, etc. The goal was to explore all of the possibilities and let my subconscious personality take over and prioritize. I also explored other instrumentalists, trumpeters Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, Ingrid Jensen, Louis Armstong;; pianists Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Robert Glasper, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans;; Guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel, Charlie Christian, Jimi Hendrix.
If I had to describe who I’m most similar to, I’d have to say a combination of Dick Oatts, Kenny Garrett, Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond. Keep in mind that I’ve stolen artistic sensibilities from all of them, so my tone may be most similar to Kenny Garrett, but my rhythmic concept may be more similar to Dick Oatts, and my melodic ideas to Paul Desmond.
Compositionally, I’m a little easier to track. Most of my melodic and harmonic ideas come from the work of Wayne Shorter - my favourite jazz composer. Orchestration wise, Percy Grainger holds a very special place in my heart, as well as John Adams, Steve Reich, Maria Schneider. The electronic music of Aphex Twin, Deadmau5, Daft Punk have also been influences and for big band the writing of Thad Jones, Bob Brookmeyer, Chuck Owen, Vince Mendoza, Jim McNeely, among others, have been very important in developing my big band voice.
What did you grow up listening to?
McDonald: I definitely departed from the popular tastes of my peers at an early age. I remember listening to a huge diversity of classic rock - an influence of my dad, and a lot of early grunge - an influence of mostly my brother. Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam were constantly being played and I grew a strong affinity towards that sound, though I was younger than 10 years old and had no context for what it was supposed to represent. In fact, most of my affinities for music are largely unrelated to the supposed intentions of the artists - I was far more fascinated with my own interpretations and feelings than what the composer or lyricist was trying to convey. That was a curious quality about art that I grasped at an early age. Creativity is cathartic for the artist, but the end result most often acts as a mirror to our own souls as audience members as opposed to a window into the soul of the creator.
I got hooked on jazz and instrumental music pretty quickly. I bought “The Jimi Hendrix Experience” when I was 11 years old, and picked up the saxophone shortly afterwards. I quickly dove into the world of jazz, and the rest is history. My study of saxophonists continues to this day - there are several musicians with extraordinarily unique approaches to the instrument and the music that may not have the same historical exposure as a iconoclast like Coltrane or Charlie Parker.
Do you come from a musical family?
McDonald: Nearly everyone in my family plays a musical instrument, at least casually. Music was constantly playing in the house, though by the time high school came around that was mostly due to my practicing and listening habits. Music was considered so important to our family because it is an expressive activity that teaches many, many of life’s lessons. In many ways, practicing and performing helped me deal with bullying, stress, and the many emotions that pass through a young person’s mind. I also was able to derive confidence through the ability to do something really well - playing saxophone. Studying a technical skill, such as
instrument does wonders for self esteem, and I think that was the main goal, if anything, of my parent’s continued push to perform music.
What do you enjoy most about what you do?
McDonald: Currently, I’m playing saxophone and flute on the international tour of “Dreamgirls”, and the best part of this experience is the opportunity to travel across the continent, and out to Japan in August of this year. I get to spend my free time with wonderfully talented people, and see parts of the world I would normally pass over. At the end of the North American leg, there will only be 4 states out of 50 that I have not visited and performed in - something most Americans don’t get a chance to do, especially something a Canadian would rarely do.
In terms of writing and performing my own music, I think the most enjoyable aspect has to be the study portion. I listen to all sorts of types of musics, and analyze what I hear into manageable chunks that I can combine together in a manner that works best to get a response out of me. When you finally hear the fruits of all your labor, and your music hits that climax you planned out weeks ago on a napkin at a bar, the chills running down your spine and out to your fingertips is all I need to continue on the path I have been on. The euphoria is addictive, even though the process at times can be extraordinarily painful.
What makes you different to the current wave of artists?
McDonald: I think one of the biggest differentiating factors between myself and the current wave of popular artists is my education. There is a large group of people who feel like education has hindered their creativity, but I felt like education was the key to a wider expressive range. The popular artists I enjoy usually have enlisted the assistance of highly educated or experienced individuals to help them bring their artistic vision to life. My best example is Quincy Jones, a talented jazz trumpeter and arranger, who brought his musical sensibilities - through decades of experience - to the ears of millions on the records of Michael Jackson. The principles he learned writing big band charts for the Count
Basie Band are present in his work as a producer, and I believe it can be heard and felt - and your layperson recognizes it, but struggle to define it since they don’t have the education to apply technical labels to what they are hearing. Those labels, as arbitrary as they might seem, are of huge assistance in bringing ideas to life. I feel like with my education, I have been taught to create, recognize and communicate labels in an effective way to get my ideas across - and more importantly than anything, I’ve gained insight into the learning process. Learning is so crucial to stay on top of what is new, because as an artist, one has to have the capacity to evolve with the changing times in order to be relevant.
What would you do if you weren’t doing music?
McDonald: I mentioned this before, but it is likely that I would be pursuing a career in the pharmacology field. The maximalist attitude of the discipline is what draws me to it, still to this day. I also feel like it would be an excellent career in which to be creative, as the whole industry is based upon innovation. I would be spending hours pouring over research, trying to find the unexplored - much like I do currently on my instrument.
Dreamgirls is still touring the United States, finishing June 9th in Dayton, OH. The remaining tour dates can be found athttp://www.dreamgirlsontheroad.com/ and the production opens in Tokyo on July 29th.