Donny McCaslin: On The Way Through

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The church that I go to--First Presbyterian in NY--has basically choir and organ. I have to say, I'm in there sometimes and the music is killing.
Saxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin has already made his presence felt on the scene for some time. Playing with a wide variety of jazz's current talents, he has developed a truly distinct voice, both as player and writer. Dedicated to pushing jazz into new realms, McCaslin's voice has never been more clear and directed than on his latest release for Arabesque, The Way Through.

Recently, it was my privilege to speak with Mr. McCaslin about his latest album as well as his upcoming projects.

All About Jazz: First of all, I want to congratulate you on this album. I think it's really one of the landmark albums of the year.

Donny McCaslin: Thank you very much.

AAJ: This album has several of my favorite musicians on it. I've been a big fan of Scott for some time now, and I recently saw Adam Cruz playing with Danilo. How did you get together with this group?

DM: I would say it came together when I was talking with David Binny who produced it with me. We were talking about what kind of record I wanted to make. The basic premise was to make a trio record, but a different kind of trio record, a trio surrounded with these different colors.

I have been playing with Scott Colley for ten or twelve years. We were in this group called Lan Xang together for awhile. We did a lot of playing with that group, and did some records and touring. I played on one of his records and he played on one of mine, so I have this long relationship with him and I knew he was the right guy for what I was hearing.

As well, at the time I made this recording and was preparing for it, I was in the midst of this two year stint with Danilo Perez and the Mother Land band, and Adam Cruz was playing drums. I'd known Adam for a long time, but this was the first time we'd played together on a consistent basis. He's such a wonderful player. So musical and he's a multi-instrumentalist. He plays marimba, steel plans, percussion, as well as piano and vibes. So I knew he would be great not only for playing drums, but for adding these other colors.

In terms of the woodwinds... I don't even know how that came about. I guess it was that... I felt like the songs needed some harmonic color and that would be the way to go. I've also had a long relationship with Doug Yates. I knew him when we were kids in California... I went to college with. Known him for a long time.

Luciana [Souza] was singing with Danilo at the same time... and we've also had a long musical relationship. I played on her latest record. We've played a lot over the years, so I was really happy to have her be a part of it because she's not your traditional vocalist.

AAJ: No.

DM: Understated. She's so incredible, such a great musician. She was able to step in and nail the stuff right away. Man, her voice is so beautiful.

AAJ: How much do you think the success of the recording process had to do with having toured with them and played with them previously?

DM: I think it helps a good deal, especially in the trust department. I felt like we could just go for it right away. I didn't feel like there was any feeling out process. We all knew each other and could jump right in. I think having that sense of trust based on long term musical relationships... helped it to go so smoothly.

AAJ: I'll ask the same question about the compositional process. Considering the strongly individual voices of these musicians, when you were composing did you have them in mind ahead of time, or did you come to them after you had developed the concepts and basic structures of the songs?

DM: I would say, mostly it was the latter, that I had written the songs not necessarily with particular people in mind, but at the same time with Scott and Dave Binney especially, because I have such a close relationship with them that there sound is often in my head as I'm writing. It's maybe not even a conscious thing where I'm thinking "I could hear Scott playing that" while I'm writing.

Come to think of it, I think it is somewhat a conscious thing. I think it comes in there. I'm writing a bass line and I'm hearing his sound. Just because I know his playing so well, and the same thing with Dave. He's one of my favorite composers and I respect him so much as a musician, that I'll be writing and thinking sometimes—I think he has a hand and an influence in my writing style. Just because I've learned a lot by studying and playing his music.

AAJ: I was particularly interested in the interaction between you and Scott. There did seem to be a similarity in the way the lines were being built.

DM: Yes.

AAJ: I was curious about how much you were composing with him in mind, as you said, and how much his playing influenced the music during recording.


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