Veteran guitarist Doug MacDonald is so prolific, his bold, colorful arrangements and precise, fluid melodic lines so adaptable to so many different ensemble settings, that every review must begin with a rundown of at least a few of the many different settings he’s applied his sparkling magic as a leader to. So to recap, among other endeavors, he’s helmed The Tarmac Ensemble, Doug MacDonald Quartet, Doug MacDonald Duo, Doug MacDonald Band, Doug MacDonald and The L.A. All-Star Octet, Crosstown Collaboration (a duo with Russ Feinberg). He also led a 13-piece ensemble with a woodwind quartet, brass quintet and rhythm section. And while billed as a solo effort, his 2022 set I’ll See You In My Dreams was a lively quartet date with legendary jazz cats Tamir Hendelman, John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton.
It was surely only a matter of time before MacDonald mounted the greatest challenge of all, leading his own big band. Coming full circle from his early days performing in Hawaii with big band greats Trummy Young, Gabe Baltazar and Del Courtney, he formed the Doug MacDonald Big Band in February 2020. In the insightful liner notes to Big Band Extravaganza, his first bona fide venture (and adventure!) into this arena, the guitarist writes, “After writing so much ‘chamber music,’ I wanted to write music for an ensemble with conventional jazz instrumentation and combine jazz with horizontal composition, putting the focus on the individual melody instead of the chord progression.”
Three words: Mission mightily accomplished, and infectiously so, offering a dynamic balance between his own solo prowess (as on the vibrant, high energy opener “Toluca Lake Jazz” and the buoyant, hard grooving, sassy swing “De Ha”) and opportunities for various horn greats in the 17-piece jazz orchestra he assembled to strut their improvisational stuff as well. Fans of Overtones, MacDonald’s excursion with the L.A. All-Star Octet, will note some important holdovers from that exciting session – including saxophonists Kim Richmond and Rickey Woodard, trumpeter Aaron Janik, trombonist Ira Nepus and pianist Bill Cunliffe, who brought his exquisite ivory harmonies on day one of the session, with Andy Langham handling day two.
MacDonald’s eclectic array of compositional styles is on full display throughout, from the swaying, subtly Latin romance dance “Rashomon” through the whimsical trad jazz blues “Lucas Azules,” the deeply percussive (and perfectly titled) jazz waltz “Minor Mess” and the freewheeling closer "Ya Know Bill.” MacDonald complements these with a spirited spin on the Gershwin classic “But Not For Me,” featuring the fiery, percussive horns and one of the Woodard’ most imaginative sax solos. It might be asking too much for the constantly shapeshifting MacDonald to stick with one vibe too long, but the Doug MacDonald Big Band, as the culmination of so many elements of his lengthy career in jazz, should be a mainstay – not only in the guitarist’s creative universe but in the world of 2020’s contemporary jazz.