Open Borders: an Interview with Professor Earl MacDonald

Pianist Earl MacDonald, Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Fine Arts, released his fifth album, Open Borders, on November 21, 2017. Involving collaboration at its core, from the diverse band to the wide range of UConn School of Fine Arts faculty members that united to assist in Earl’s creative process, the premise of the album is to build bridges and not walls. In his own words, stated on his website, “Borders, restrictions, divisions, limits, boundaries, barriers, separation, walls — to me, all of these words have such negative undercurrents. Maybe I’m oppositional by nature, but just reading these words arouses some unrest within me. I feel myself bracing, preparing to question, plot and defy. I see this oppositional trait in my children too, and frequently have to remind myself that obedient conformers don’t typically become world changers.”

Q: What does Open Borders mean to you?

I knew what made the project special was the diversity of the band, in every sense – age, race, sexual orientation, gender, life experiences etc. What’s interesting though is in jazz, diversity isn’t new or all that unique. There’s been so many people that were trailblazers beforehand. Racially mixed bands are not a new concept. Complete integration might be new in other aspects of American culture but not so much in jazz. At the same time, that still didn’t diminish the fact that it’s special societally, with what’s going on in our current political culture. I’ve learned the importance of diversity by working in a university environment. Drawing upon the ideas of individuals that don’t think like yourself can form and shape your thinking in different ways. So, from the onset, diversity was a goal for this ensemble.

Q: How was the name Open Borders chosen?

The title was actually chosen very late in the process. Speaking of drawing upon the ideas of others, I really struggled finding the right name for the album, so I sent out invitations to some of my favorite thinkers within the School of Fine Arts faculty to gather for a brainstorming session. It actually took a little while for Open Borders to come to the surface. It’s really a unique way to present the notion that I had an especially diverse band. The band’s diversity didn’t come about by accident; it is the result of deliberate actions of people in the past, and the way America’s history has unfolded. There’s people that fought those fights. Billy Strayhorn, for instance, was one of the first jazz musicians to be openly gay. He created inroads for other people to come out now. Also, I imagine Mary Lou Williams struggled in working her way into a male dominated workforce. It’s not a closed border mindset that led to these developments. As artists, we want to fight borders and restrictions, because that’s what’s going to make you a great artist.

Q: How did the cover art come about?

Cora Lynn Deibler, UConn Professor of Illustration, was in that group of brainstormers who helped come up with this Open Borders idea. When I handed out the notepads to everyone, she doodled all over it, and there was an image of this sole person standing there who is seemingly presented with options in terms of direction in this open landscape. This image spoke to me, and was ultimately selected because it is representative of us, as artists, in the sense that we are faced with choices and possibilities. I also really liked Cora Lynn’s bird idea. There are birds and flight paths throughout the CD packaging. I think it is an ingenious way to avoid clichés pertaining to open borders, like “the wall” and border crossing signs. Birds don’t adhere to borders; there are no restrictions on them. I’ve always been a fan of Deibler’s drawings. She has illustrated children’s books, but at the same time if you look at her website, she’s not afraid to tackle political and controversial subject matter. I like that her illustrations disarm you. For example, if you’re looking at the Open Borders title, and you’re politically right-leaning, I imagine you might be more open to considering another viewpoint through her clever artwork. She had tons of ideas for the cover, it was a fun process. She’s a great thinker! You can imagine how powerful it was to have ten people like her gathered around a table presenting ideas and helping me get “unstuck.”

“I started to think about the things that are borderless,” Professor Deibler stated. “People have borders, we make them, so what does not recognize borders? Animals, birds, mammals, insects, plants, weather – those things aren’t contained. They go wherever they feel they need to be. I started to work with the idea of the birds representing the musicians Professor MacDonald pulled together.”

Q: What was the timeline of making this CD?

This project has spanned many years. I imagined the group’s instrumentation in 2009. I was working with the Hartford Jazz Society and pitched the idea of forming a band to represent them and help them accomplish their goals. We made our debut performance in Hartford’s Bushnell Park and over 5,000 people attended! Then I just kept adding to the repertoire, expanding and writing a few new arrangements for every subsequent performance. I also workshopped the music with my UConn jazz students, which was a win-win situation. I could hear and develop my music, and benefitted from their input. They got the experience of working firsthand with a composer in the act of creating. In the process, I fine-tuned the pieces. This saved a lot of rehearsal and studio time later, with the professional musicians. The recording session itself was one, long, intense day. At times it was stressful, but everyone worked well together. I spent a lot of time in the editing process, but the music is accurate and how I envisioned it. I spread the editing and mixing of the album over a year’s time.

Q: What is your creative process when writing music?

I usually start by making lists of things related to a topic or the song’s title, like literary references, visual images, or emotions. Sometimes I think more like a storyteller. I think about where I want a piece to go, and how I will get to its climax. Often, I’ll imagine different characters interacting with one another. Once I have several pages of non-musical ideas, I might go to the piano to improvise, or I might sing something into the voice memos recorder on my phone. Sometimes I’ll dance around the room, singing a rhythm, trying to capture the ideas as they come to me.  If I come up with something that really catches my interest, I might try to develop it. I’ll play with it backwards, expand it, put it into another key. Writing music definitely draws upon both sides of the brain. There’s definitely an intuitive side, but it’s then those instinctive ideas need to be developed tactically.  

Q: What’s your favorite song on the album and why?

I don’t know if I have a favorite song. The songs are kind of like my children because I’ve invested so much time into each of them. There are certain songs I like for different reasons. I do like Mirror of the Mind because it sounds expansive; it reminds me of Aaron Copland in some ways. I think of mountains and picturesque nature. There are other songs that are really driving and swinging that I like, Sordid Sort Fellow, for example. It’s kind of simple in a jazz-sense, but sometimes simplicity is attractive.

Q: What song was the hardest to write?

Dolphy Dance was a tricky one. A lot of these tunes developed over quite a bit of time. I like to write my stuff and revisit it. I presented Dolphy Dance in a few different ensemble settings, and one was for the UConn Symphony Orchestra. I was thinking of the saxophonist Eric Dolphy, who leaned toward the avant-garde in jazz. His music will really stretch you. It’s aggressive and outside the normal parameters. I was picturing what he would sound like in a Salsa setting. That’s one of the things I like doing in my composing — fusing two styles that might not naturally fit. Presenting the Symphony Orchestra’s classically trained musicians, with Latin, dance-like rhythms, helped to develop the piece into something outside of what I would normally write. It also opened my imagination to some different orchestration colors and possibilities.

Q: What do you think your next project is going to be?

As much as I enjoy recording, I now plan to switch gears for a period, and devote my time to composing and arranging for big band. Almost every university in North America and Europe has a 17-piece big band, so there’s a market in education for this music. In addition to having my music performed by other groups, I will be focusing on marketing my skills as a guest pianist or conductor. It is always fun working with different groups of musicians and experiencing how they interpret my music.

Q: What was the most special part of this project for you?

Collaboration with UConn faculty was a definite highlight, and it led to making the album unique and special. My colleagues from the School of Fine Arts had so many great, inspiring ideas. One of the things I like about working at UConn is that I can collaborate with experts in other areas. I was really stuck in trying to find an album title that articulated the project’s essence. I was going in circles, but drawing from the brain power of these highly accomplished, award-winning artists who were willing to come together was one of the most special parts of this whole project.

Links for more information:

Press release:
*Album liner notes:
About the music:
The musicians:
The band’s history:
The recording process:
Download or Purchase the CD: