Student Recital: Keenan McDonald

This past Sunday, Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m., a student recital featuring a diversity of musical styles was performed in Harper Hall. Keenan McDonald, a senior from the percussion studio of Dane Richeson and a student persuing a Bachelor’s of Music in performance with a jazz emphasis, performed everything from Bach to Chick Corea, with a couple of selections in between.  

The concert opened with a Bach partita originally written for violin, (BWV 1002), featuring McDonald’s sensitivity and tenderness in displaying the contours of the partita with the unique timbre of the vibraphone, a “metallic percussive keyboard instrument,” a.k.a. a xylophone with metal bars and a sustain pedal. Bouncing between moving melodic lines and rich chordal harmonies required near finger- and arm-acrobatics to attain; McDonald appeared fluid and deliberate with the ease of a true professional behind the instrument. 

The next selection featured a newly written piece released in 2009 called “Hop (2).” This work was originally recorded by the great marimbist Nancy Zeltsman, who has hosted previous marimba festivals here at Lawrence in the past summers and who coached members of the LU percussion studio via Zoom last winter, including McDonald. From an audience perspective, the visual element of the performance lended itself to the title, the mallets seeming to hop from chord to chord, across the full range of the instrument, sometimes needing to play notes written five feet away from each other within the span of milliseconds. This required gigantic arm reaches and lots of total body choreography to pull off, and yet with all that visual activity the sound remained clear, balanced and groovy.  

Skipping ahead, the following tune was originally an improvisation on a slow blues captured on Oscar Peterson’s Night Train record, later titled “Hymn to Freedom,” and dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. by Peterson in the 1960s. Later, it was arranged by McDonald for vibes, marimba, piano, drums and bass for this performance. This arrangement was particularly outstanding in its ability to transcribe and emulate the jazz piano idioms of the masterful Oscar Peterson onto contemporary marimba and vibraphone (vibes) textures and for how it incorporated the talents of McDonald’s friends on their respective rhythm-section instruments. Those musicians included Reese Pike on piano, Finn MacEwan on bass and Aaron Montreal on drums, all of whom made for a dynamic and unified foundation that best showcased McDonald’s arrangements and solos. 

A later selection was titled “Chega de Saudade” — a traditional Brazilian bossa-nova work arranged by McDonald for a small ensemble, including the other rhythm-section members already mentioned, while adding Ben DePasquale playing a sort of Brazilian tambourine called pandeiro and Jackson Peters on guitar. The tune’s opening featured melodic statements transitioning seamlessly between piano and vibes, emulating the duets of Gary Burton and the late great Chick Corea, all occurring in a concert setup while being blind to each other. The caliber of listening and unity demonstrated was truly a spectacular feat, and the synergy was thoroughly enjoyed by the audience.  

The next tune featured the rhythm section, joined by Eli Elder on curved soprano saxophone, and performed McDonald’s entirely original composition “Tide.” The opening featured intricate vibraphone mallet dampening techniques by McDonald, who made a stereotypically percussive instrument truly sing. Elder’s saxophone solo provided sweeping gestures painting a picture of a broad moving and rushing river like the title “Tides,” embodying both the froth and foam washing on the top of the waves as well as the powerful undercurrent beneath. 

The last piece was “Endeavor,” written by pianist Hiromi Uehara, featuring a groove vacillating between a slow-driving funk groove and a more straight-eighth hip fluid pulse. In this work, McDonald appeared more relaxed, moving to the groove, embodying the soul of the work, and at the end of his solo he played a melody with both hands simultaneously that transitioned beautifully into the guitar solo: any audience member could see and hear that this moment was powerful and well-placed within the larger work. About a minute after this magical moment, MacEwan took a sick bass solo over a pushing, simmering groove, and the end of the tune was marked by a “vamp,” a cool looping groove, where the pianist and guitar traded short solos called “4’s” before the song faded away into surreal silence. 

Taken as a whole, this concert featured collaboration, spontaneity and the realization of McDonald’s soulful playing and brilliant arrangements played by and with the best of friends. Those who wish to see this concert should check out the LU Vimeo archive link by following the QR code.