Home Jason's Jukebox The Chat Room: Jen Stephen and Dan MacDonald of The Pipes

The Chat Room: Jen Stephen and Dan MacDonald of The Pipes


They say opposites attract, and that’s certainly the case with The Pipes, the new endeavor that brings together North Atlantic Drift, one of Canada’s premier Celtic music ensembles, and the Toronto Brass Quintet, a group committed to pushing the boundaries of traditional brass music. While it helps that Dan MacDonald (fiddler in North Atlantic Drift) and Jen Stephen (tuba player in the Toronto Brass Quintet) happen to be married, the union of these two forward thinking musical entities was successfully accomplished only through a collective vision shared by everyone involved.

The Pipes is comprised of nine instrumental pieces recorded at Toronto’s Union Sound by Leon Taheny and Darren McGill that revitalize traditional melodies in a most exciting and—dare it be said—unprecedented way. The idea for The Pipes had actually been percolating since Dan and Jen met over 20 years ago, prompting Jen to become more deeply familiar with the intricacies of Celtic music. She began tentatively writing a few arrangements for North Atlantic Drift to perform live, which eventually led to other members of the Toronto Brass Quintet adding their voices to what soon became a passion project.

When pressing play on The Pipes, there is indeed an initial shock to the system hearing fiddles, whistles, trumpets and the tuba all co-mingling on the opening track “The Gold Ring.” But once one’s ears have adjusted, the music becomes a compelling example of what can be accomplished when masters of their individual crafts apply their knowledge and training to creating something new. A fine example is “Aces & Deuces,” which spotlights Ross Griffiths on the uilleann pipes. As he establishes the main melody, the brass section slowly joins in, adding counter-melodies and carrying the tune to a satisfying conclusion. Another standout is “A Song For All Seasons,” written by the late Toronto violinist Oliver Schroer. In a novel twist, The Pipes version puts the brass at the fore, and in doing so offers a poignant tribute to Oliver’s compositional talents.

The Pipes is packed with such unexpected delights that will cause even the most die-hard traditionalists on either side of the genre divide to marvel at the inventiveness on full display. There is another old saying that maintains there’s nothing new under the sun. Don’t tell that to the members of North Atlantic Drift and the Toronto Brass Quintet because with The Pipes, they just may have stumbled upon an entirely new form of music.

The Pipes will officially be launched on Monday, Nov. 27 with a performance in Toronto at the El Mocambo. The album will also be available that day on all digital platforms.

What was your inspiration behind making The Pipes?
Dan: Ever since Jen arranged her first traditional piece in 2001, for a tuba/euphonium ensemble when she was working on her master’s in Ohio, the idea has been rattling around.
Jen: The pandemic provided us with an opportunity to delve into it more deeply and a luxury of time to experiment with arranging the different styles.
Dan: In essence, we both play chamber music, and combining our individual sounds in this way emphasizes that. It’s a deep look at chamber music and what can be done with a small ensemble.

What was your process in choosing the most suitable material?
Jen: For years, as I have been going to Dan’s shows and listening to him play, I have been noticing specific tunes that really excited me in terms of how they might work for brass instruments. I had done some arrangements for brass of some traditional tunes in the past, so when choosing the material for the album I already had a bank of ideas from which to draw. From there, it was just a matter of listening to them again and trying to come up with a vision of what would work best together with the traditional instruments.
Dan: I had some suggestions for Rob Weymouth, trumpet and arranger for TBQ, and he turned them into a set. It really just proved to me how easily the genres co-mingle.

One of the album’s most affecting pieces is Oliver Schroer’s “A Song For All Seasons.” Was it your intention to pay tribute to him by including this song?
Dan: Absolutely. Although we never met Oliver, he was always an enduring presence in the Ontario music scene. His music really lends itself to this idea, and his approach mirrors what we did with this album.

As life partners as well as musical partners, how satisfying is it to see this project come to fruition?
Jen: It’s incredibly satisfying. Dan has always pushed me to do things I thought were unattainable, and this is no exception. The idea of putting out an album is beyond my realm of experience up until now, whereas Dan has put out several, both as a soloist and with North Atlantic Drift. To have the two of us working on this has been incredibly fulfilling. It also speaks very strongly to me of the community we have built since moving to Toronto 20 years ago. I think we are rare in that the members of our ensembles are also our closest friends, and I feel so fortunate that we have been able to build this life together.
Dan: There aren’t many couples that are set up like us. Tuba and fiddle don’t usually go together! However, the life that we have built together seems to get more and more interesting as we go along. So many firsts, and this is one of them — the further adventures of Jen and Dan.

What are your plans for The Pipes after the album launch show on Nov. 27?
Jen: We’d love to present it in chamber music series and in folk music series across the country. It’s unique in that it fits both styles, and I think both audiences will appreciate it. The fact that the Canada Council supported us so significantly in making this album really indicates to us that it is something worth presenting on a national scale, and that it crosses the boundaries often set by the terns “traditional” and “classical.”


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