Doing A Little Searching With A Big Sound

Vocalist Sara McDonald steps out in front of her seventeen-piece big band + string quartet like the sorcerer’s apprentice. She smiles into a crowd of friends and colleagues. She’s a bit nervous. Her demeanor is casual yet commanding. This will be the debut of The Sara McDonald Orchestra at The Triad Theater  on West 72nd Street in New York City.

Sean Little is playing tenor to my left, Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf is playing trombone right behind me, Laura Huey is playing viola on the ground, Sam Neufeld is playing trumpet way in the back, Jill Ryan is playing alto right behind me and Owen Dudley is playing guitar in the far right hand corner.

(L to R) Martin Seiler, tenor sax; Christopher Misch-Bloxdorf, trombone; Sara McDonald, voice; Sean Little, tenor sax. Photo by Ivy Meissner.

When it comes to conducting a large jazz ensemble there are a handful of methods. I prefer to think of two polar opposites: the Paul Whiteman classical method and the Butch Morris conduction method. Orrin Evans often leads his Captain Black Big Band from the piano with shouts and stomps, while Ryan Trusdell’s Gil Evans project observes the role of “conductor” in the classical sense. Sara McDonald adheres to her own rules.

McDonald is a multi-tasker, giving an illusion of passive conducting with one eye and an ear behind her back at all times. While she sings to the crowd, she conducts behind her back and claps above her head. McDonald’s lyrics are meta-mystic, they retain a mysterious yet personal aftertaste. McDonald’s writing, both musical and lyrical feels like she has morphed her memoir into fable.

The recording she’s celebrating is A Very Tiny Big Band Album. It was born during a trip to Germany summer 2013.  She explained that, “There was already an established big band in Munich that was interested in my work and so I gathered everything and got to writing. I also only had three weeks to write and arrange all of the material and send it off. Once we set up everything with The All Jazz Orchestra, they wanted to get the parts as soon as possible so they could begin rehearsing before I got there.”

Sara McDonald’s significant other, German-born multi-instrumentalist and composer Martin Seiler, played an integral role in the making of A Very Tiny Big Band Album. “Basically, Martin gave me the contacts and resources I needed, I sent a bunch of emails, and we set up rehearsals for when we arrived.”

Album cover photograph by Ivy Meissner

Album cover art/photograph by Ivy Meissner.

McDonald enters big band writing from the side door; she doesn’t’ spend much time listening to large ensembles. She digs into electronic soundscapes associated with artists like Zero 7, Flying Lotus, and St. Vincent’s recent large-ensemble work with David Byrne. “For this record I was greatly influenced by Sufjan Stevens, Hanne Hukkelberg, Grizzly Bear, and Martin Seiler; his big band composing and arranging is actually some of the most impressive of its kind.”

Seiler is working on a score for a film called Stills featuring a small electronica ensemble with strings and woodwinds.“Not to sound pretentious, I just appreciate any composer that will rage an ostinato figure as long as they damn well please.”

McDonald’s alma mater is The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. The New School is a jazz education hub that serves as an incubator for many established musicians and rising voices. In response to McDonald’s time in the walls of jazz-school, she attributes her education to two (female) professors.

“Getting to study with Jane Ira Bloom was definitely one of the most musically enriching experiences I’ve ever had. She’s a kick ass lady with a tremendous amount of wisdom. I also took a class with Ingrid Jensen, another great human who taught me a lot about music and life and things like that.”



“Southern Point” is a piece in Sara McDonald’s big band repertoire written by the experimental rock band Grizzly Bear. “What I appreciate most about their sound is how lush it is,” McDonald explains. “They’re able to write catchy hooks and melodies while maintaining sonic integrity, which I think gets overlooked so frequently in the pop music world.

“Their arrangements are unconventional at times, their harmonies are complex and the lyrics are thoughtful and interesting. They can be aggressive and rocky at times, but tastefully so, and they manage to span so many genres while never falling into one completely. It’s substantial pop music. I would love to one day achieve all of those things with my music.”

At The Triad for her live debut, it’s safe to say that Sara McDonald’s rhythm section rocked: electric bass, electric piano and electric guitar rhythm section lay on the edge with keyboard parts often dominating and dictating the metric and harmonic shifts. The most impressive aspect of Sara McDonald, the vocalist, is her ability to deliver melodies hidden deep within the harmony, with pure pitch, full tone, unique timbre and honest confidence.

In New York City, many large ensemble leaders have a difficult time maintaining their bands. With touring and teaching opportunities, it’s difficult to get 17 hardworking musicians in one place at the same time. The struggle is real for Sara McDonald. “Scheduling rehearsals is hard and finding space is even harder, but I can’t ever let myself get discouraged. If I let the technical aspects of this endeavor freak me out then it will never survive. If there’s a will there’s a way.”

And McDonald’s willing it! She’s pushing for festivals and clinics in the coming years as she continues to expand her own boundaries in writing and arranging. It’s tedious, she admits, but “if you don’t love doing it then it just won’t work. It takes up a lot of my time but I certainly do love it more than anything.”

Hear the Sara McDonald Orchestra Monday, June 2 at the Tea Lounge in Brooklyn. They will perform 2 sets at 8:30 and 10:00 p.m. at no cover charge. Stream A Very Tiny Big Band Album below and purchase for a mere 5 dollars.


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