If saxophonist Donny McCaslin's life were made into a movie, the following 'scene' could be a natural start: A young boy perched on a stool on the bandstand at a California mall. Too young to be let loose to wander, it's an efficient way his working father could keep an eye on the boy and still do his regular Sunday gig playing standards.
The grown-up McCaslinnow juggling the delights and rigors of new fatherhood with his career as an outstanding musician with eight highly enjoyable recordings as a leader and many important sideman creditsstill inhabits bandstands. But in his leadership role he does things his way. And, because of his exploratory nature, that doesn't often include standards.
McCaslin explains: "I feel like I want to hear something new, I want to hear something different. I also want it to contain elements of the history of the music I love so much. But I also want to see the music move ahead somehow. It's a bit of a balancing act: I try to spend some time to inform myself about the history, things I've overlooked, to fill in the gaps and try to broaden my knowledge [of the past]. But at the same time, I'm trying to let go of all that, kind of following my own instincts and see where that leads me."
Those instincts have led to some fascinating and productive musical territory. From 2006's Soar to In Pursuit with its explorations of AfroPeruvian and various Latin rhythms to Recommended Tools with its emphasis on the dynamics of trio work and his latest very horn-infused Declaration, McCaslin's recordings show a developing, cohesive vision. Technical prowess is there, but also feeling. Melody, harmony, rhythm all play their part...
Perhaps that's partly because of those early experiences with his father's band. McCaslin never really got to walk around that mall. Instead, when he was old enough to get off his stool, he'd sit in with the band, playing "Great American Songbook standards and sort of Cal Tjader-esque Latin jazz and R&B kind of things. So I got a lot of experiences hearing and then playing those tunes. [Standards are] what I grew up with and a format I feel comfortable with." [Check out his gorgeous version of Strayhorn's "Isfahan" on Recommended Tools and even the much earlier rendition on .] ...From the time when I started playing, which was when I was 12 years old, I always felt really called to play. I have found it to be a really meaningful form for self-expression and I just love it so much.
"I also try to write fairly consistently. Many years ago my first big gig was with Gary Burton's group and one thing he said was: 'One way to find your voice as an improviser is through composition.' So I think that's part of it for me, the quest to find my voice."
As an in-demand sideman with groups including the Dave Douglas Quintet, Maria Schneider Orchestra (McCaslin was nominated for a Grammy as soloist on her Concert in the Garden), Mingus Dynasty and Mingus Big Band, Gil Evans Orchestra, Ken Schaphorst's big band and work with Pat Metheny, Eddie Gomez, Danilo Perez, Luciana Souza, Brian Blade, the fusion ensemble Steps Ahead and many others, McCaslin has contributed to the quest of other innovators in getting their own voices heard properly. It's a give-and-take process that can run deep, with appreciation on both sides.
"Donny is one of the most thoroughly dedicated musicians I've ever met," says Douglas. "His first gig with the quintet; because of the circumstances it went off without a rehearsal or even a soundcheck. He was perfect, not one note or inflection out of place. In his own work, Donny is one of the most exciting and, well, crushing, tenor players out there. A superb writer with the instrumental muscle to pull off just about anything. On the road I get a lot of inspiration from listening to Donny practice down the hall or backstage. The inspiration continues on stage."
McCaslin credits Douglas as an influence: "I certainly learned a lot from being in his group. Seeing his compositional process. He's a prolific writer and I feel I learned a lot. ...Also, I admire his clarity of vision, his drive and his focus and they're all really impressive and inspiring to me."
McCaslin also cites saxophonist David Binney, a frequent collaborator, as a continuing influence on his constantly evolving learning process. "I've known Dave Binney a long time and I've learned a lot from playing his music and checking out how he writes. ...And he has a great vision as a producer [having produced McCaslin's Declaration, Recommended Tools, In Pursuit and Soar). Says Binney: "He is amazing to produce because he is so open. And he gives me a lot of leeway in the way the projects develop."
And then, there's fatherhood...