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Donny McCaslin: On The Way Through

By Published: February 13, 2004
DM: Yeah, well definitely during the recording process, it's huge. I know some moments on that record where there's that conversation going on during the improvising sections where it's my solo but I'm reacting to things that he's playing—he's such a great player, so lyrical, so rhythmically strong, his pitch is so great. It's so clear what he plays—it really gives me a lot of fodder to play with, to react to, and to weave around. So, definitely, it's a big part of it.

AAJ: Going back to your composing, I have a really open ended question. The album is fairly diverse...

DM: Yes.

AAJ:...but to me, what held it together was a certain textural similarity, if that makes any sense.

DM: Yes. That makes absolute sense.

AAJ: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you approach texture, how you build that textural similarity when you're approaching material that is so diverse.

DM: I think it's thinking about the thread that goes all the way through the song. I knew that the material is diverse, but I knew that if the thread was there, it would work. I would say the thread is my musical language, that even though there's a standard, or a Wayne Shorter tune, the way we're playing on the tunes converts them into one statement.

AAJ: You seem to provide a lot of space for people—and yourself—to really improvise and head in unexpected directions.

DM: Definitely, definitely. My idea as a leader is to try and get musicians on the gig that I want to hear what they are going to do. I want to provide an environment where they can be creative and we can interact and get into conversations, where we can tell our stories in interesting ways. So yeah, I do. It's a combination. There are these tunes that have clear forms and clear solo sections, but then getting into those sections and having it be loose, be malleable, have it be open so we can take it to different places every time.

AAJ: Even though the songs are not based on completely free improvisation, I didn't hear the more standard "I solo. You solo," or trading back and forth. I was really hearing within the improvisation sections a more free, interactive process.

DM: We were trying to think about creating something different, where it's not like I'm just the one improvising, where we're playing together as a group.

AAJ: Does that go back to what you were saying about the trio with color?

DM: Exactly. And I thought... I talked about this with Dave. We were talking about how there are a lot of trio records. When I think of trio records I think of Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. Incredible. More like blowing records. And I thought, "How are we going to make it different?" Dave suggested, let's not burn out on every tune, think of it more like creating a painting.

AAJ: I also want to ask a few questions about your style of playing. I'd like to discuss the concept of minimalism in your work. Could you elaborate a little on that?

DM: When you ask that question, one thing that comes to mind is there are a few moments on the album where it went into a more ambient vibe.

AAJ: Exactly. I actually listen to a lot of ambient and electronica music. When I heard this, I said, "wow, this is really unusual in jazz."

DM: Exactly. I don't know a lot of ambient and electronica music, but I knew that was the vibe I wanted on certain things. Especially using the sampler. We just wanted to create a vibe that was different. I felt like if I was playing, I wanted to be part of the ambience. Not playing over the top of it. In those moments, I wanted to add a color to the color that was already there as opposed to playing a bunch of stuff on top.

AAJ: Everything was very blended.

DM: For me, I think that is something that developed through the group Lan Xang, and touring with Danilo. We talked a lot about improvising together and not having the roles be so clearly defined. Having the trust to let go and try to be part of the overall picture that's happening at the moment. And thinking about taking on different roles as an improviser.

What I mean by that is for me not thinking like a saxophonist. I think this relates to what we're talking about here. In that moment, I'm not really thinking like a saxophonist. I was thinking about the ambient vibe, so I would play a... multiphonic thing that is part of the texture. It comes from the idea of being part of the ensemble.

AAJ: I'm very interested in the idea of textural development, especially in the context of improvised music. There seems to be a sort of branch of jazz heading in that direction. If you're talking about textural development, who are you building on?

DM: For me, its not necessarily jazz musicians. What I was hearing was coming more from material like Radiohead—certain moments—and Bjork. Maybe Squarepusher.

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