Doug MacDonald has kept himself quite busy this year. The veteran jazz guitarist, who has worked with legends, such as Buddy Rich, Ray Charles, and even Rosemary Clooney, released not one but two new recordings this year. The first – his new studio recording, Toluca Lake Jazz — was released Feb. 5 through his own label, Doug MacDonald Music under the moniker Doug MacDonald Duo. That is because he recorded the record with just one other person, bassist Harvey Newmark. A mew live recording simply titled Live in Hawaii, followed on May 4, less than three months later. These two recordings are sure to appeal to MacDonald’s established audiences just as much as fans of guitar-based jazz in general. In the case of Toluca Lake Jazz, the 13-song recording stands out in part because of the approach taken to the songwriting here. This will be discussed shortly. The liner notes that accompany the album in its packaging adds to its appeal and will be discussed a little later. Moving on to Live in Hawaii, this recording, captured in 2019 by a public radio station in Hawaii, stands out mostly because of its set list. The concert’s audio production also serves its presentation well. It will also be discussed here. It should be clear at this point that each of MacDonald’s new recordings has plenty to offer audiences. Those items collectively make each recording a presentation that is both engaging and entertaining.
Toluca Lake Jazz
Doug MacDonald’s latest new recordings are presentations that his established audiences and jazz guitar fans in general will find equally enjoyable. In the case of his new studio recording, Toluca Lake Jazz the enjoyment comes in part through the approach that MacDonald took to the album. MacDonald recorded the 53-minute album with bassist Harvey Newmark. Using that approach of just the two musicians is unique in that there are no drums overlayed from any studio session drummers or even electronically. Additionally there are no added electronic elements to the songs. Rather, the compositions are simple in their approach and so soft. That means that the utmost attention had to be paid to each composition. That attention to each musician’s part in each song makes for so many light, but still engaging work.
The liner notes that are presented in the album’s packaging are important in their own right to the album’s presentation. That is because they include some brief but concise background information on each featured composition. MacDonald also provides some background on how the album came to be in the first place. He explains in this case, he had never before crafted a “duo” album. He adds that the album’s title came from the fact that the studio in which he and Newmark recorded the album was adjacent to Toluca Lake, a region known for a rich jazz culture and history. He points out that the title is a tribute to that history and culture of that region.
In terms of the songs’ backgrounds, audiences will be interested to learn that the album’s title track was originally composed as a big band composition. Taking that into account, one can almost hear a gentle, steady beat kept by a pair of brushes on a snare drum while some clarinets underpin that line and the two primary performers. One can even hear, maybe, some muted trumpets backing MacDonald here. It is a prime example of how the liner notes add to the overall engagement and entertainment in this record.
On another note, the background information reveals that while this album’s title was a tribute to the culture and history of the Toluca Lake jazz scene, it was not the only one honored. The background information on ‘Desert Jazz’ points out that this song is a tribute to the Palm Springs jazz culture and history. That community was highlighted by famous jazz figures, such as Dina Washington, Dean Martin, and even Hoagy Carmichael. Considering this, one can hear the diversity in the community’s jazz scene quite well in one’s mind. This makes for its own engagement and entertainment, too.
Moving to another song, the liner notes’ background information states that Newmark was the one responsible for the decision to cover the classic 1928 song ‘If I Had You’ (by Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, and Ted Shapiro. The differences between the original piano-centered composition and the update are clear. McDonald’s performance makes that clear. Add in the fact that the original barely topped the one minute mark and that this song reaches five minutes shows there are a lot of changes. Even with the variances in mind, he and Newmark still make their own unique and enjoyable take on the song. This is just another way in which the background information on the songs – as brief as it is – still plays a big part in the enjoyment of the songs. That information, along with the brief information on how the album came to be shows in whole, the importance of the album’s liner notes. When those notes are considered along with the general approach to the songs, they (and the record’s sequencing) make the presentation here a fully immersive work that MacDonald’s audiences and those of jazz guitar will equally enjoy.
Live in Hawaii
Live in Hawaii was released, as noted already, early this month (May 4th to be exact) through MacDonald’s own label. Originally recorded pre-pandemic in 2019 at Hawaii Public Radio’s Atherton Performing Arts Studio in Honolulu, HI, the seven-song, 59-minute recording is another work that the noted audiences will enjoy.
The enjoyment of Live in Hawaii comes in part through its featured set list. The set list in question features original works from MacDonald as well as a handful of covers. Amongst the covers are takes on songs made famous by the likes of Lester Young, Oscar Pettiford, and Harold Arlen. Where Macdonald’s new studio recording featured only himself and Newmark, this performance features MacDonald alongside three other musicians – bassist Dean Taba, drummer Darryl Pellegrini, and vibraphone performer Noel Okimoto. The group’s take on ‘Lester Leaps In’ takes the timeless tune and gives it a fun new presentation while also staying true to its source material. Okimoto’s subtle performance on the vibraphone works with Pellegrini’s steady time keeping, Taba’s also subtle performance, and MacDonald’s performance (which leads the way here) to make the song a wonderful update on the song that any jazz aficionado will appreciate.
The quartet’s performance of MacDonald’s original song ‘Bossa Don’ is interesting in its own way. The bossa nova presence is clearly there. At the same time though, it is more subtle than that of so many pure bossa nova works. In the case of this composition, the group balances its jazz leanings so well with the noted Latin influence. The whole becomes a work that is unique and just as enjoyable as any of the concert’s other songs.
Okimoto, MacDonald, and Taba join in the cover of ‘Pettiford’s ‘Blues in the Closet’ to give that song its own great new take on that song, too. Each performer gets time in the limelight, adding in solo touches to enhance the song. Meanwhile, the song’s base is handled so well by MacDonald and Okimoto. It is a wonderful display of old and new alike to show even more why this record’s songs are so important to its presentation. The group goes backward and forward in time with each song, paying tribute to the classics while handling MacDonald’s originals just as well from one to the next.
On a side note, audiences will note that the concert’s set list seems deliberately established. It starts out with a “short” (in comparison to the concert’s other works) song that clocks in at just under six-and-a-half minutes in length. From there, the songs grow in length, peaking at 10 minutes 36 seconds in ‘Star Eyes.’ From there, the songs’ performances gradually decrease in length again eventually closing out in the six-and-a-half minute finale, ‘Stranger in Paradise.’ Whether the gradual increase and decrease in the songs’ lengths is deliberate, but it plays just as well into the set list’s appeal as the songs and their performances.
While the set list featured in this recording goes a long way to make it just as appealing as MacDonald’s new studio recording, it is just a portion of what makes the recording appealing. Considering the picture of the group performing that is printed under the tray in the CD’s packaging, it looks like the Atherton Performing Arts Studio is something of an intimate venue. Such a seemingly small venue means that additional attention had to be paid to every detail in terms of the audio production. Those behind the boards are to be commended for their painstaking work to balance everything, too. The audience noise is only audible following the solos and songs as the audience applauds. The airy sound there and even as the band performs allows audiences to know that they are taking in a live show. What’s more, that no echo effect happened especially in such an intimate venue, is another tribute to the work put in to ensure the recording gave audiences the best seat in the house. The overall time and effort put in to ensure the audio’s balance throughout makes the recording just as enjoyable for its sound as for its content. Keeping this in mind, it makes this recording just as enjoyable for audiences as MacDonald’s recently released studio recording. The two presentations collectively give MacDonald’s audiences and jazz guitar fans alike a lot to like from MacDonald this year.
Doug MacDonald’s new studio recording, Toluca Lake Jazz and his new live recording, Live in Hawaii are impressive new offerings from the veteran jazz guitarist. Each offers its own engagement and entertainment. In regards to Toluca Lake Jazz, that appeal comes through the general approach to the record’s presentation and the performances, as well as the record’s liner notes. The liner notes offer brief but concise background on the album’s songs. That background makes for its own appeal. That is because of the thoughts and discussions that it is sure to generate.
In regards to Live in Hawaii, its set list, the performance thereof, and the seemingly deliberate ordering in regards to the songs’ run times forms a strong foundation for that record. The set list, in all of the noted factors, makes for a solid starting point for the recording. The recording’s audio production serves to make the performance’s sound just as appealing as the performance there. Those items collectively make this recording another successful offering from MacDonald. The two recordings together give jazz and guitar-based jazz fans just as much to appreciate as MacDonald’s established audiences. Toluca Lake Jazz and Live in Hawaii are available now through MacDonald’s own label, Donald MacDonald Music (also known as Dmac Music).
More information on these recordings is available along with all of MacDonald’s latest news at:
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