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July 25, 2005

Jazz Saxophonist Kirk MacDonald

Written by
cindy mcleod

One of my all time favourite tenor saxophonists is Kirk MacDonald. Born and raised in Cape Breton, Kirk began studying at the age of ten, and in 1975 relocated to Toronto, where he continues to write, record, perform and teach. All too often musicians of his calibre leave our country for far off places, it is a true blessing that he chooses to remain and contribute immensely to our the Canadian jazz scene.

Kirk plays with the intensity of a bullet train, a big, fat sound roars from his horn in the bop and mainstream styles, yet the sensitivity and tenderness in his approach to a ballad is like a heartfelt prayer. It’s very clear this man has listened with big ears to those that defined the artform, the roots integrated seamlessly into his sound along with his own voice, his improvisational ability underscoring the effort he’s put in learning the ‘rules’ in order to break them.

His composition resonates with every listening, perhaps it is defined by the landscape of his youth, the tempestuous nature of the Atlantic challenging life from its indomitable spirit. There’s a sense of resilience and aloneness in his work, a dark, moody and immovable presence, followed by a deep calm voiced in his gorgeous ballads, as though the sun has broken after a raging storm to warm the craggy rock.

I met Kirk here in Calgary close to a decade ago, when he was performing in a local club with the great Sam Noto. What struck me at the time was the degree of respect and honour he paid Mr. Noto both on and off stage, taking great care to see that Sam had the profile and comfort level he so deserves in both regards. Kirk was easily in danger of stealing the show, but he skillfully illuminated Sam’s voice with the dexterity and support only the greatest of sidemen can offer. It was clearly evident that unlike many players, he hasn’t forgotten the guidance of the masters who helped him along the way. It was this combination of his ability as a player and his genuine and loving heart that made me want to hear more, and to hear his own work. I have all of Kirk’s recordings in my collection, and they invariably inspire me to work harder and dig deeper for the sound I strive for.

As often happens with musicians, we all had a hang after the gig the first time we met, and I was able to ask Kirk about his development as an artist. He was quick to pay great respect to his influential teachers, Don Palmer and Lee Konitz among them, as the forces that combined to bring him to his place as a major leader in the Canadian jazz field. He spoke with deep love for his family, and the healthy balance and support they have provided him as the grounding for a clear path to his goals. He also mentioned the inspiration his students offer in their own search for musical greatness.

We in turn are inspired by you, Kirk, and thank you for your gift of music. You are cemented in the history books of great Canadian jazz. www.kirkmacdonald.com

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