Ian McDonald, who died at age 75 on Feb. 9 after battling cancer, was not a name known to casual music fans. But anybody who’s scanned the liner notes of rock albums released during the past five decades knows what an important contributor and immense talent he was.
The trained multi-instrumentalist — guitar, keyboards, reeds — and producer came to fame as part of King Crimson’s first lineup and enjoyed even bigger notoriety as part of Foreigner’s original roster. He also had his own bands (McDonald and Giles, Honey West), recorded two solo albums and did plenty of session work, including for T. Rex, Steve Hackett and John Wetton. McDonald even composed and played music for the Frog and Peach Theatre Company in New York.
“People used to say, ‘How come you’re doing this rock n’ roll thing with Foreigner when you did all the prog rock things before?'” McDonald — who Foreigner founder Mick Jones referred to as “a musician’s musician” — told Billboard a few years back. “It’s not as if I’m someone learning a new trade or something like that. I just apply myself to whatever situation I’m in and try to make things as musical as possible. That’s what I do, and that’s what I look for when I produce records.”
McDonald, who also co-produced Foreigner’s first three multi-platinum albums, certainly produced a lot and leaves behind a potent musical legacy. Here are 10 moments everyone should hear to appreciate his work.
“Under the Sky” (1968/1992)
McDonald spent time as an adjunct member of the King Crimson precursor Giles, Giles and Fripp and composed a piece called “Under the Sky,” for which he played flute and acoustic guitar and sang Pete Sinfield’s lyrics. It didn’t make the initial The Cheerful Insanity of Giles, Giles and Fripp album but was one of the bonus tracks on a 1992 reissue.
In The Court of the Crimson King (1969)
You can find McDonald highlights on all of this landmark album’s five tracks — the ferocious sax riffs in “21st Century Schizoid Man,” the sweet flute on “The Court of the Crimson King” — so just listen to the whole thing. McDonald co-wrote everything as well as playing Mellotron and other keyboard parts, along with vibraphone. And he composed the title track and “I Talk to the Wind,” with Peter Sinfield providing the lyrics.
McDonald and drummer Michael Giles continued on, briefly, as a duo after leaving King Crimson, staying in the band’s experimental lane. The McDonald and Giles album’s side-long closing suite (along with the opening “Suite in C”) showcases McDonald’s composing and arranging acumen as well as his performing skills, soaring from Beach Boys harmonies to jazzy improvisations. The piece actually dates back to 1968, built from a Sinfield idea, and King Crimson performed one of “Birdman’s” sections, “Wishbone Ascension,” as part of its similarly ambitious “Trees.”
“Bang a Gong (Get It On)” (1971)
McDonald made significant contributions throughout T. Rex’s second studio album, Electric Warrior, but why not go with the best-known? His alto and baritone sax honks are subtle but present, driving the song as hard as Marc Boland’s guitar and the Steve Currie-Bill Legend rhythm section. An illuminating example of how McDonald stands out, even when just doing his part for the ensemble.
“One More Red Nightmare” (1974)
McDonald returned to the King Crimson ranks as a guest on Red, the group’s seventh studio album and first as a trio. McDonald’s alto sax slips into side one’s closing track at about the 3:10 mark, turning a heavy rocker into a jazz excursion that sounds freeform even if you know every note was well considered. McDonald also paired with another Crimson alumnus, Mel Collins, for a two-sax attack on the album-closing epic “Starless.”
“Long, Long Way From Home” (1977)
The opening track from side two of Foreigner’s multi-platinum self-titled debut album features a brief but hot sax solo by McDonald, who co-wrote the song as well. The song reached No. 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been cited as one of group founder Mick Jones’ all-time Foreigner favorites.
“Love Has Taken Its Toll” (1978)
McDonald wrote the music (Lou Gramm did the lyrics) for this chunky, soul-flavored track from Foreigner’s second album, Double Vision, lacing a sax break into the middle section.
“Nothing Is Easy” (1996)
McDonald’s flute skips through this Jethro Tull favorite from To Cry You A Song: A Collection of Tull Tales, an all-star tribute album that featured some of the band’s past members along with admirers such as Glenn Hughes, Kansas’ Robby Steinhardt, Charlie Musselwhite and more. McDonald is joined on this take by Roxy Music’s Phil Manzanera and onetime Crimson bassist-singer John Wetton.
“Los Endos” (1996)
From one prog rock hero to another. McDonald joined former Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett for his Genesis Revisited project, adding new flute and saxophone parts to Hackett’s expansive rendition of this instrumental from the 1976 album A Trick of the Tail. McDonald takes advantage of the blank canvas, at least for his instruments, to give this new version a touch of free jazz and Sonny Rollins-styled wails that take it in an entirely new direction.
“Sax Fifth Avenue” (1999)
McDonald picks his alto sax spots wisely in this smooth instrumental from his first solo album Drivers Eyes — and also plays an electric piano that gives the track its restrained but still vibrant mood and flavor.