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Interviews

Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006

Some friends of mine say, 'Oh Donny, youre the nicest guy. You're always in a good mood; youre always happy.' And I always say to that, 'Thank you for saying that, but you dont really know me that well.'

Donny McCaslin California-born, New York-based saxophonist Donny McCaslin has become an overnight sensation.

Except that he's not—he's been playing tenor (as well as other reeds and flute) with all sorts of heavyweights for years, including Gary Burton, Mike Manieri's Steps Ahead, Brian Blade and Danilo Pérez. McCaslin was a co-founder of the collaborative band Lan Xang; the other members, Dave Binney, Scott Colley and Kenny Wollesen, are old friends and frequent collaborators. McCaslin is a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and his epochal solo on her song "Buleria, Soleá y Rumba on her 2004 Concert in the Garden CD finally seemed to put his name on the A-list of contemporary tenor players.

At this point, however, he'd already released three fine albums under his own name: Exile and Discovery (Naxos, 1998), Seen From Above (Arabesque, 2000) and The Way Through (Arabesque, 2003), each recording featuring McCaslin's emotional, singing saxophone—and his tough, taut compositions, which demonstrate unarguably that he is much more than a thrilling player.

2006 has seen McCaslin tighten his grip on the jazz limelight with the release of two remarkable—and remarkably different—new CDs, Give and Go (Criss Cross) and Soar (Sunnyside). As if that weren't enough, he's joined the Dave Douglas Quintet and can be heard on the new Douglas CD Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Music). I spoke with McCaslin just before he hit the road with Douglas for a US tour.

All About Jazz: This year you've recently released not one but two new CDs: Give and Go on Criss Cross and Soar on Sunnyside. These are the first recordings under your own name since The Way Through, which came out back in 2003. Give and Go is a quartet/quintet session recorded in June of 2005, and Soar's a larger-ensemble production done over a longer period sort of wrapping around that Give and Go session. These two records are quite different from each other. How'd you get in a situation of two somewhat concurrent recording projects?

Donny McCaslin: I had been planning Soar for awhile, and just finding a time period when Antonio [Sanchez] and Scott [Colley] and Dave [Binney] could be there was somewhat of a challenge. So I finally settled on those May dates, which was a time when everyone could do it; I planned it about six months in advance.

I had been in contact with [Criss Cross producer/executive] Gerry [Teekens] over the years; we'd talked about doing something, and he'd asked me about a day to record at one point, maybe a year-and-a-half ago, but it was during a time period where I was on the road, so it didn't work out. But after I had planned the Soar session, Gerry called and offered me a date three weeks after the initial Soar days. So I just decided, "what the heck, I've got the music—I'm just going to go ahead and go for it and do the two of them back to back.

AAJ: Let's talk about Give and Go first. This is, compared to Soar, a pretty straight-ahead one-day jazz session, although every time I listen to it, I like it more—love it, actually—and find more to distinguish it as something really remarkable.

Let's start with the personnel—you're on tenor and a bit of soprano, and we've got John Swana on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Gene Jackson on drums. Colley's on Soar as well, and you two go back together to the days of your band Lan Xang. How'd you arrive at this lineup for this session?

DM: Well, first of all, Gerry wanted trumpet on the date. We talked about a few different players, and he had suggested John. I had no problem with that, because I'd played with John a couple times and felt a connection with him musically and really enjoyed playing with him. I'd talked about a couple other guys who I play with more often here in New York.

AAJ: Like Alex Sipiagin?

DM: Yeah, exactly. I suggested Alex, who I play with a lot and who's also a Criss Cross guy. But Gerry wanted John, so I was great with that. I like John's playing. And then I had suggested Gene Jackson, because we'd been playing together a fair amount, and also Steve Cardenas, who was somebody that Gerry Teekens didn't know. But he was cool with using Steve—because Steve knows the music and we have a history of playing together, I knew he was the right guy. And Scott's done a lot of Criss Cross dates, and Gerry was into my using him. I just love playing with Scott, so I was happy he could do it.

AAJ: This may have been a one-day session, but this band sounds tight. I hear the subtle cueing and the responses are always immediate. There's no hesitation and no sloppiness. Had this group had the chance to rehearse?

DM: Yeah. I knew this would be a one-shot deal—make the whole record in one day—and I really didn't want to go in underprepared. I didn't want to go in feeling like things were not just ready to go. So I did prepare in the sense that Steve Cardenas and Gene Jackson did a variety of gigs with my group, mostly at the 55 Bar. I was able to get Scott on board for a concert we did in Brooklyn at this loft space about a month before the record date. And then we did rehearse.

The day before the record date, John Swana came up from Philly, which was great. I had sent John the music maybe a month or so in advance, and it's a little tricky, some of those melodies, and he really did a great job. He'd checked the music out, and when he came to rehearsal he was prepared. So there was a conscious process of playing and working on the music with these guys in whatever setting and group of guys I could arrange.

For example, the tune "Outlaw —we played it at that loft gig, and it just wasn't there yet. I knew there was something I needed to add to the tune. After that gig, I still had some time before the recording and so was able to sit down and add that bass line on the B section. Then on the section at the end of the tune, I was able to add the bass line and then double it with tenor—oh, and add the horn counterline to the melody at the beginning. So it was great to have the time to reflect on the tune after performing it and kind of modify it and get it just right for the recording.

The same thing was true with that song "Drift. That's a tune I had written a few years ago, but as a quartet tune. I didn't have that harmony part really fleshed out, so again, having a little time to experiment with that was nice. At the rehearsal, we were taking turns playing the lead or playing the harmony. Having the time to work that out was really beneficial, because when we go to the date, it was all about doing takes. We didn't have to mess with things. Well, there was one tune—for "The Liberators' Song, that ballad, we tried a couple different form ideas at the recording session, but everything else was pretty much together before we got there.

AAJ: I think that's audible in the finished product.

DM: That's the reason that I got all these guys on the record. They're all such great players and I knew they'd be prepared—so it would just be all about the music.

AAJ: Well, you can't beat just the physical knowledge you all have of each other. You'd played with most of these guys in a lot of settings, and at a certain point you're going to know them, and vice-versa.

DM: Exactly. Like Steve Cardenas, for example. I initially played with him, oh, years ago—I think I was just out of college. He was living in San Francisco at the time and [drummer] Kenny Wolleson, who I grew up with in Santa Cruz, put together a couple of gigs for our group in the Bay Area and got Steve to play guitar. So we did bunch of playing back then and have had this history through the years.

So when I knew I was doing a Criss Cross date and was considering material, I was thinking, "who's the guy who's going to comp for me the way I want to hear it and bring these tunes to life? Of course it was Steve, because I have his sound already embedded in my head from this history of the relationship that we have. He's just a real musician. I got together with him, went over to his place, we were looking through the tunes, experimenting with different voicings—it was a process.

AAJ: Let's talk about the album's opener, "Outlaw, which you've already mentioned. This is an amazing composition. At first I thought it had a sort of classic 1960s Blue Note feel to it, but now I'm not so sure—maybe there's a bit of that in its head with those sax/trumpet harmonies cutting across the guitar riff, and I think maybe Swana's solo reminded me of Freddie Hubbard in the precise way he can phrase rapidly.

In any case, there's a nervous elegance to this song that I love. I know it was inspired by an Egberto Gismonti song, but tell me a bit about it.

DM: It was initially inspired by Gismonti, yeah. I'm trying to remember the name of the Gismonti tune. It might have been "Frevo, but I'm not sure. It's a tune that I wrote around the time I did a tour with [drummer] Brian Blade and I was really hearing the way that Brian would play a tune like that—there's a guitar melody, there's a counterline, there's that bridge and then there's the next section where the melody is kind of sparse and there's a lot of room for the drums to fill and to color. I was initially hearing the way that Brian does that, where's it's got a rock straight-eight thing, but it's also really loose and malleable. That was initially what I was hearing on that tune.

AAJ: I love how Gene Jackson drums here and throughout the record—it's almost as if he's fighting with the groove as much as riding it. There's a sort of constant restlessness to his playing on the album, and while the tunes would have an easier swing if someone were just stating the pulse more calmly, I don't think they'd be nearly as good or stand up to as many listenings.

DM: Yeah, I really love the way he plays on that record. I think it's a great example of what a terrific musician he is. "Outlaw is a good example of that, because that's a tune that I have played various times over the years with different drummers and in different situations and I always struggled with how to describe the groove. What do I tell somebody? If somebody were to play a samba, it didn't sound right to me. Or if they played a rock double-time straight-eight thing, it didn't quite feel right to me.

What happened with this is that I went to Gene's house by myself with the music two months before the record and said, "I kind of want to do this tune, but I don't know what kind of groove to tell you to play, so can we experiment? We just played it and he recorded the two of us playing it duo. So Gene said, "okay, this is going to be an American samba.

I feel like what he plays is so perfect for that tune. And yes, throughout the record, his energy is just so intense.

AAJ: He's just very uncomplacent; he doesn't take anything for granted. He's trying to do something with the music.

DM: Exactly. And that's one of the major reasons I knew he'd be the perfect drummer for that record. I really rely on him throughout that record to provide that dramatic tension. There are a lot of drum solos that are built into the forms.

AAJ: The tags.

DM: Yeah, on the tag on "Drift, he's blowing over that. It's so dramatic there, what he's playing. It's so intense—it's not like, "oh, it's just a drum solo at the end and let's just fade it out and move on to the next tune. I feel like what he's playing is compelling. Like on the tune "Give and Go, having him play over that ostinato figure—I really rely on him throughout, and he doesn't fail to deliver. He's got a beautiful solo voice.

AAJ: "Scrappy is another great one—I know it's based on a synthetic scale from Messiaen, and it's got a sort of sophisticated stop-time structure and a weird, Monkish quality. Certainly, some of its strangeness comes from those intervals, but I also think some comes from the way its melody lines, like in the unison trumpet sax theme, are often descending—not going up, but down. You keep that going in your solo, too, which is endlessly melodic but often made up of descending phrases. Any ideas here?

DM: It's a tricky tune to play, the way the phrases lie. And there are a couple odd meter bars. Well, not odd meter, but there are a couple 2/4 bars—it's tricky to play over. So when I was improvising, I was really trying to improvise with the spirit of the tune, to take the spirit of the melody and try to develop that in my solo. You know, I've been playing it for a long time, and I've tried all these different ways of approaching soloing on it. What finally felt like it really worked was just embracing the melody and trying to develop it through the solo.

In terms of the song itself, it is basically just this quirky kind of Monkish, synthetic scale-based tune [laughing]. But it's also really bluesy; it's really got a blues feel to it with that stop-time thing on the bridge that Steve plays over. I used to play over the whole form of the song, A-A-B. But when we were working the stuff out, rehearsing and playing those gigs prior to the recording, I think it was Steve that suggested we do a thing where I'd play over the A section, and he'd play over the B with the stop-time thing, and then they'd do into swing or whatever.

AAJ: Right, they go into a straight-ahead part with the walking bass.

Donny McCaslin DM: Yeah, man, and I love that! It's so cool because it's this little tune, but both those sections are pretty distinct in an of themselves. So I do my thing over the A section and then the B feels like a release; Steve's solo has a really different vibe from mine. Which is nice—it's not like we're just playing over the same form with the same vibe chorus after chorus.

You know, A-A-B is a very common song form, but it's all about trying as a composer to find ways to make it interesting when you're blowing over it: finding ways to make it different, to make it more interesting, to make it more of a journey for the listener. So it's not so repetitive.

AAJ: Well, there are plenty of jazz records out there. There has to be something to make people want to listen to this one and something to make them come back after hearing it once. Steve made a good suggestion there.

DM: Yeah, and getting back to your earlier question—I learn so much playing with great musicians. I learn a lot from what they suggest. Little things like that: "why don't you try this? It might even be something that I might have thought of and then thought, "ah, no, I'll just stay with what I'm doing. Sometimes having someone like that, who's a great musician and whose opinion you trust and value, make a suggestion—I feel like a learn a lot interacting with my musical community in that fashion. "What would you play over this tune? I'm writing some music right now; I got this CMA grant.

AAJ: Right, Chamber Music America.

DM: Yeah. So I'm writing some music. And I was on the road with Maria Schneider last week. We were in Pittsburgh for a few nights. She's got this guy, Gonzalo Grau, who's a pianist who lives in Boston. He also plays cajon and he's a really great musician in general; he knows all about Afro-Peruvian music, Venezuelan music, and so on. So I have these tunes that are based on these couple Afro-Peruvian rhythms and I have these little sketches and tunes: maybe a montuna figure, or something like that.

So I invited Gonzalo to my room and said, "okay, if you were to approach this in an Afro-Peruvian way, what would the bass do? What would the cajon do? Sometimes getting feedback in that sort of situation is just so beneficial.

AAJ: "The Liberators' Song was, I know, inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Márquez book. This is a really beautiful mood ballad—it's got a great spaciousness and to me, a sense of irretrievable loss and finality—a finality that's sort of underlined by the tune's final unison bass/tenor tag. I really love your phrasing on the initial composed melody of this one—it's very personal and considered and has a heartbreaking impact. Tell me about this one.

DM: I was just trying to convey that sense. I had just finished reading that book, The General in His Labyrinth, which is about Simón Bolivar. It's kind of a heartbreaking story in a way, this guy who was going to liberate all of South America. His vision was to unify South America, but he just wasn't able to do it, and seeing in the book the way things fell apart was compelling and also heartbreaking. So I think I was feeling that and trying to convey it in the tune. For me, ballad playing... playing the melody is really such an opportunity to really express yourself. So I really try to take great care learning the melody and digging deep to express a feeling when I'm playing a melody like that.

AAJ: "Give and Go is an up-tempo, hard-swinging tune—there's a feeling of vibrating motion, no stable surface to grab hold of. It's constructed around that call and response of Steve's guitar riff and the two of you then doing that unison response to it—the give and go, I guess of the title, which is inspired by your love of basketball. I really love your solo here and can't help but think this is good stuff to solo through—good writing. Tell me about it.

DM: It's another tune that was written on a synthetic mode. It might have been one of Olivier Messiaen's modes of limited transposition. If it wasn't, it was some offshoot that I had come up with myself. In any case, I had this synthetic scale and I was just practicing on it and I started hearing this intervallic thing. That's how the tune started.

I had actually written that whole melody before harmonizing it, and it's a jagged, intervallic melody—so I thought that to try to contrast the jaggedness of the melody, I would try to come up with some serene harmony underneath it to try to make it beautiful. The first chord's kind of a dominant chord, but then from there it kind of goes into this more major, happy sound. Then it ends with this darker chord quality. But I think I also drew the harmony from the mode that the melody came from—not exclusively, but that was my starting point.

This was another song where, in its final recorded form, I improvise over a slightly modified version of the melody form. "Slightly modified means there's one less bar, something like that, that I took out to give it just a slightly different flow. So I improvise over that, then I hand off to Steve by going to this other section, that's just kind of an open vamp over an A tonality—whereas I've been playing through these different changes derived from that mode. When I hand off to him, it goes into that other thing and the feel changes. Another kind of example of me trying to pull out these different aspects of a song. So Steve blows over that and then we go back to the intro vamp, and that's what Gene blows over.

AAJ: During Steve's solo, the accompaniment changes, too, so only Gene is playing along with him—although Gene's kick drum is like one whole musician in itself. You know, I love Steve's comping here around your solo—nice and aggressive, not your standard robot comp, and it can't be easy to comp against Gene's playing.

DM: Yeah, you've got to be confident there. But I knew that Steve would be prepared. I knew that if we got together with the music ahead of time, he would get inside all these tunes and be able to draw that harmony out that would make my solos sound stronger—support me in a strong way—and that he would be grooving. And he is; he's in the pocket, he's swinging, and you're right—it's not easy to play against what Gene's doing. But Steve finds those holes, and he finds them beautifully, and that brings everything to another level musically. He's like the glue that's holding a lot of that together.

AAJ: "Drift is a gorgeous piece with a remarkable theme with a sort of flowering harmony between trumpet and sax against a bass/guitar vamp and, I think, an overall tension between somewhat stated time and rubato time. Both you and Swana solo very well and your own solo covers a huge emotional range: love, terror, maybe even working beyond all that to transcendence. I really like how that bass/guitar vamp in the beginning gets expanded for the coda.

DM: First of all, to address your last observation about the coda: this is another tune that I had initially written in a sort of A-A-B format with the C section being that vamp that you spoke of. So initially, it used to be that we would play over that whole form, but again, during the preparation for this, I think it was Scott this time who suggested, "hey, why don't we just play over A-B and have C be just an interlude between solos? So then we tried it that way, and then we thought, "well, why don't we just have it at the very end?

So again, the final form of that tune came out of working it out within the community and having guys make some great suggestions.

Now in terms of the emotional quality of my solo, I would say that on that one—and really, a lot of times—I was just kind of going for it. Just laying it on the line. Which is terrifying, but there's also a lot of love when you feel that it's really connecting. And that feeds upon itself, and gets more and more intense as you feel that magical, mystical connection with your bandmates. It was really thrilling at the moment to feel on this one that I was really connecting.

AAJ: It's very nerdy to talk about something so mundane after hearing you say that, but are you overdubbed on this one? I think I hear two saxophones on the track.

DM: Oh, yeah, that's right. I'm glad you mentioned that. That was also Scott's suggestion—that we do some colors on that coda behind Gene's solo. So we overdubbed saxophone and some trumpet, I think. And some guitar atmospherics that Steve overdubbed, all to just create some more colors behind Gene.

AAJ: I think we'd better move on to your other new album, Soar, which is a record your friend Dave Binney produced—and it is a produced record, with overdubbed parts, a large ensemble of players, and a Latin, South and Central American feel. You're no stranger to Latin musical structures—you played in Danilo Pérez's group for years, Maria Schneider's stuff also has that influence, and you played as a kid in a salsa band.

But this is more than that—this a real album-album with a very heartfelt, optimistic and yearning emotional core that's perhaps even spiritual. Tell me about the project—how it was born.

DM: It was born out of the process of my life and out of trying to bring all my musical influences together into a language. I was exposed to Latin jazz when I first starting hearing music because my father plays vibes and piano and my father loved [Latin-jazz vibes pioneer] Cal Tjader. My parents were divorced; I would see my dad one day a week. Basically, he'd pick me up at my mom's house and bring me downtown to the Santa Cruz mall, where he had this gig. I'd help him set up his equipment, and he had a chair for me on the bandstand. This was before I was playing, so I would just sit there all day in the middle of this band that had my dad on vibraphone plus congas, marimba, Wurlitzer, electric bass, drums, two horns, singers—that's what I grew up in.

So yeah, then I played in that salsa band and then at Berklee I was friends with Danilo. But I've always had an affinity for Afro-Cuban music, and that's just grown over the years. But I didn't want this record to be like, "oh, yeah, now I'm going to do a salsa or a Latin jazz record. Instead, I wanted to take that influence, that rhythmic influence, but combine it with my love for other types of music—like more of a pop harmony thing—and bring those two things together.

That was the idea: rhythmically, something coming from Central/South America, but harmonically and melodically, thinking about the country that I live in. I just wanted to bring those things together in an interesting manner. That was my goal on this record.

AAJ: Well, it certainly is much more than a Donny Does Latin sort of CD. That's just part of the whole vocabulary.

DM: Yeah, part of the vocabulary. I feel like it's different from that; it's not like, "okay, this one is a 3:2 son montuno tune, and so on. I feel like the two languages are more integrated. And there's the jazz thing: the improvising throughout it.

AAJ: Tell me how you chose the players for this record—what kind of a sound you wanted.

DM: I wanted a big, almost orchestral sound. And I knew I needed percussion. After doing some gigs with Antonio Sánchez, a year or two prior to the recording, I knew he was the right drummer. Scott [Colley], of course, because I always use Scott [laughing]. Well, I don't always use Scott, but I wanted Scott because of his sound and his musicianship—you know, there's a lot of written bass lines on this record.

AAJ: I think he's the cornerstone of this record.

DM: Yeah. Yeah. He's just such a rock. I feel like I can always count on him musically. And then [guitarist] Ben Monder, because he's been playing in my group for years. For the tune "Hero as a Boy, for example, with that beautiful guitar line—the way he plays that is so majestic, so beautiful. And on the tunes where he solos, like "Be Love, and "Soar, he can just get down to business.

And then [vocalist] Luciana [Souza] and I have a pretty rich musical history together playing with Danilo's group. I played on one of her records and did some of her gigs, and I've had her on some of my gigs and she's on [McCaslin's 2003 CD] The Way Through. In a way, I felt like a few tracks on that record The Way Through were the beginning of Soar. "San Lorenzo, "The Way Through —the way that the voice and the saxophone are integrated on those two tracks in particular, that for me was the beginning of Soar. I was like, "oh, I really dig this sound—now let me explore that.

Antonio recommended Pernell [Saturnino]. I'd heard Pernell before, but Antonio said, "man, this is the guy to get for percussion—he's amazing, so musical, never overplays, never gets in the way. [Pianist] Orrin Evans was a late addition to the record. I was meeting with Binney and we were listening these versions of the tunes I'd made on the computer with a program called Reason, and these sequenced versions had piano or guitar parts included. So he said, "man, you should have piano on this. So we got Orrin in. And then the horns, [trumpeter] Luis [Bonilla] and [trombonist] Shane [Endsley], were also late additions—they were there to just fill things out, and god, it sounds great.

One of my favorite moments on the record is that tune "Laid Bare, the second-to-last tune. After the head, there's a couple solos and the head out and it gets to that vamp section at the end of the head out—and Luciana, Luis and Shane come in. And we're all just playing this thing and Pernell's blowing over it, and I get goosebumps every time I hear it. It's so atmospheric, and the 'bone and the trumpet add such a beautiful sound to that section.

AAJ: Yeah, those two are only on a couple tunes, but they really make their presence known. So tell me how the sessions worked. It obviously wasn't all recorded in one day, but I assume the musicians were mostly together—it's not like Antonio did drums and Scott came in a week later to lay down bass parts?

DM: It was pretty straight-ahead. We did two consecutive days in May, and we basically did everything except vocals in those two days. We all played together; all the tracks were recorded at the same time. And in those first two days, I did the flute overdubs and the extra saxophone on that first track ["Tanya ] and Pernell also did the extra percussion on that track.

So that was all done in the first two days. Luciana just couldn't be there during those two days; she was on the road or something. So I had her come in two or three weeks later and she did the whole record in something like three and a half hours. She's remarkable. I had gotten her the music and the rough right away after we recorded, so she did have that stuff to prepare, but still—she did a great job preparing.

Here's an example of her musicianship: on "Push Up the Sky, she doubles the melody. Now, I kind of left it up to her where to double it. So she chose where to come in. Then there's that section at the end of the tune where we loop the B section three times and it gets bigger each time. So the third time, she comes in with a harmony voice, and that was something she came up with on her own.

AAJ: So she's actually improvising after the fact with the recording.

DM: Yeah. She said, "I hear this harmony thing, so let me put it down and you can use it if you like it. So she did and it sounded fantastic. And on the song "Tanya, the first song on the record—on the original recording, there's just a chorus of kids singing there. So I gave her that original recording, and then we did about five different takes, five different voices. One of the voices is like a quarter tone out of tune; she did that on purpose. She's just a great musician.

Another example: "Be Love. I gave her the counterline she sings in the melody, and where it goes to the B section, there's a chorus of Luciana—that stuff is all written out. But when we get to that vamp [sings it], first she doubled the bass line, then she doubled it an octave, and then I said, "just improvise. So that whole thing with the drums, she's just improvising along with the track.

AAJ: That's where it gets down!

DM: Yeah, it's killing! It's so happening.

AAJ: Before we discuss the individual songs from this album further, I want to tell you to send about two thousand roses to Mike Marciano, who engineered this thing, because it's so perfectly recorded and mixed.

DM: I'm going to take your suggestion, although I might not send two thousand. Mike is a real perfectionist and he takes a lot of pride in his work. I know he was taking the record home with him off the clock. So he was listening to it at home, listening to it on different systems, different speakers, tweaking things on his own time. He put a lot of extra effort into this record, and it shows.

I remember the first day of mixing the record: we were mixing "Soar, and that's a hard tune; there's so much stuff on it. I had this moment where I thought, "I've been playing saxophone for twenty-seven years, working really hard. But how much time have I actually spent mixing, or thinking about mixing? Not a lot of time. So I feel pretty blessed to have this guy to work with on this who is so together. And don't forget Dave Binney. That was another area where his production thing was so strong, his whole mix concept. He was there for a lot of the mix.

AAJ: Let's talk about the two Panamanian folk tunes that bookend the album, "Tanya and "Merjorana Tonosieña. Surrounding your big, ambitious compositions with these shorter, less-orchestrated ones that you didn't write was a conscious decision on your part. Why did you?

DM: Well, when we recorded, I hadn't thought of an order yet. That came later. But I recorded the two tunes because they had just jumped out at me when I had been in Panama, playing with Danilo. We had been playing this tune, I can't remember its title—but it's called a punto. A certain groove from Panama. Danilo had transcribed this particular song we were playing from this record, and I was excited: "where can I get this record? So I was finally in Panama, and I find this record, volume one and two of Música Folklórica Panameña.

I was listening to this stuff, and these two tunes were on one of those records. They jumped out at me right away. So I thought I'd do some arrangements of them. On the original recording, there's no harmony, no chords or anything. It's just percussion and voice, percussion and violin, or percussion and an accordion-like instrument.

So I learned the tunes and then harmonized and adapted them for my own thing, and then it just made sense to include them with the original material that was already there. Then when we'd recorded the tunes, it did make sense to have them bookend the record because they are short. But it's funny—"Tanya almost didn't make it. That was the last tune we recorded, and on the whole intro, that duo between Pernell and me, I was just trying to come up with what felt like the right way to play on it, to approach it.

I was struggling in the studio. I just didn't know what was the right vibe for it. So it's ironic that it ended up being the first tune, because it's the one I felt the least prepared to do. But this was another situation where Dave [Binney] really helped me. We tried a couple takes and talked a little about it, and it ended up sounding great. It took some time to get there, though.

AAJ: Well, it feels like a very smart way to begin this album. Because it begins with you and a percussionist—so, okay, there's percussion on this record. Then your sax is doubled—okay, there's overdubbing on this record. Then there's Luciana and Ben and that extra percussion—it's as if the musicians are walking onto the stage.

DM: Exactly. It's also nice because it's short. It's not an eight-minute epic piece. It's still a lot of information to take in, but like you say, it's kind of an appetizer. It introduces everything; it introduces the individual characters just as you describe. So it's a nice first tune.

AAJ: It's also a good song.

DM: Yeah. Good song, good vibe. It's funny—from the feedback I've gotten, people do mention that song and how they like it. And that was the tune that almost didn't make it.

AAJ: "Be Love is really elegant and swaying—Scott Colley is particularly great here, but so are Antonio and Pernell, and those two play together remarkably here. Neither is in the other's way, and they work together almost telepathically. The song is built around that five-note vamp phrase, which comes back prominently in the tag against the drum breakdown Your solo is tremendous, with nice comping from Ben, and his solo is equally wonderful. Tell me about this one, please.

DM: Like a lot of my songs, this one was kind of borne out of just practicing. That initial figure of the melody [singing it] was all I had. And I had that for a while—written on a piece of paper. It just sat there for awhile and then one day I happened to play it, and then I started hearing the groove, and one thing led to another.

When I perform live, it seems like it's one of the most appreciated tunes; people seem to respond to that tune a lot. I feel blessed that it happened to come! It's really fun to play on. What I especially love about the recorded version is the fact that there's so much going on—a lot of layers to the story. I love Luciana's countermelody. She's essentially just doubling what Ben does but she comes in a little later and the voice really adds something and she just sounds great on it.

Then there's that whole thing at the end with Antonio soloing. He plays a great solo and he's playing this great stuff, but there's also so much space so you can also hear what Luciana's doing—which is also due to Mike Marciano's great mixing. There are so many elements in there and it's all clear and you can hear it all—I'm just really happy with how it came out.

AAJ: Monder's solo really gives it this release as well. I very much enjoy that moment that he begins soloing with that liquid electric tone of his.

DM: That's another tune where I solo over the whole form of the song. Then we lay on that five-note theme that you mentioned for Ben's solo, and he can take it to that other place where he puts on that distortion and just gets all the way down. It's another example of using these different sections to create different environments to improvise in.

AAJ: That's smart. These are long songs and they would get monotonous if you didn't mix it up a bit.

DM: Totally. I'm really conscious of that. Binney and I talked about that, and we really tried to make that a priority—to try to make the record interesting in a lot of ways. That was another great thing about having Luciana as another instrument in this recording—like on "Hero as a Boy, the way she doubles the melody. It's beautiful, and it's subtle, but it adds a lot and makes it more interesting to listen to, maybe even for people who aren't such jazz fans. I think they can listen to something like that and say, "wow, that's kind of cool.

AAJ: Speaking of "Hero as a Boy —this one is a bit spookier than some of the other pieces. It's got a darker mood. It's got just Antonio on kit—no extra percussionist. It starts with Ben on that acoustic arpeggio you mentioned, which is doubled by Orrin Evans' piano, and you're right: it is beautiful. But it's also kind of scary before you come in with the melody which is, characteristically, doubled by Luciana Souza's vocal. There's a constricted feeling in this one, almost a claustrophobia, that dissipates with your solo. Then the song opens up, or so it feels to me.

I think this one and "Grafton are really important to the album; without them, it's all the big, optimistic, epic ones and the mood would be a little too undiluted.

DM: This is one of the tunes that I wrote around the time when I was playing with Danilo, and I think this is a good example of what I was talking about earlier in terms of the concept of the record. The arpeggio that Ben plays and the melody that I come with are very, let's say, ECM-ish. It reminds me of ECM stuff. But what Scott plays on that is a timbale; his bass line is coming from a chacarera groove. Chacarera is this Argentinian folk rhythm in three. Now if a drummer is playing a chacarera, it sounds weird, so Antonio is playing kind of loose—but Scott is providing that folkloric element that ties it to the earth while we're playing this floating thing on top. So that's how the tune came to be.

And the vibe is kind of intense. That's just a reflection [laughing] of how I feel. I sort of had, in some ways, a troubled childhood. So it's a reflection of that emotional angst and suffering that happened along the way. That's where that's coming from. You know, some friends of mine say, "oh Donny, you're the nicest guy. You're always in a good mood; you're always happy. And I always say to that, "thank you for saying that, but you don't really know me that well. Because that's something I exude on the outside. Inside, I'm pretty intense, my childhood was rough, and I carry a lot of that pain inside me. I've been working on it, but it's intense.

Now, the song isn't trying to say that I'm the hero. It's more of that archetypical hero of a boy who suffers and goes through abusive situations but comes out on the other side okay—or at least doing the best he can with what he has [laughing].

AAJ: There's something about your solo on "O Campeão —I hear some quality in it that reminds me of your solo on your song "Outlaw. In each cases you're fuelled by the structures, forms and musicians, but at same time I feel I can sense you trying to break free of them, to elbow your way towards space. Tell me about this song.

DM: Well, the first section is inspired by [Brazilian jazz legend] Hermeto Pascoal. The feel of the tune—well, I was initially thinking of this Brazilian groove that somebody had shown me at some point. I basically perceived the A section as having a lot of forward motion, a lot of energy: a feeling of being on top and moving ahead. The B section is a total contrast: a half-time feel and the harmony opens up. The A section has a lot of quick harmonic movement, but the B section becomes just one tonality with just some different bass notes and it really opens up there. That's the tension and release of the tune.

I mentioned Hermeto being the inspiration of the song, and Luciana happens to be Hermeto's goddaughter. So I was discussing song titles with her, and she said that Hermeto has a few different nicknames in Brazil: "the magician, "the wizard, and "the champion. "O campeão is "the champion in Portuguese, so that's where the song's title comes from.

AAJ: "Push Up the Sky really embodies the dramatic hopefulness of this album. It's hopeful, but not cloying or sugary. This song's quite grooving, but there's also a calm centeredness to it—it's in no hurry to make its point. This one has some fantastic piano playing from Orrin, which made me interested in your decision on these songs to use piano or exclude it from the arrangements.

DM: Well, I knew this one would be great with piano. And given the way Orrin plays, I thought this would be a good vehicle for him to improvise on because even though there's a form that's being followed, it's still got a pretty open feel. In terms of when to use piano and when not to use it, it seemed pretty clear to me. The tunes that needed piano have piano. Except for one, maybe: in retrospect, I might have added piano to "Soar.

But in lieu of that, we had Ben add some extra guitar tracks, and those sound fantastic, so I'm happy with how it came out. But it pretty obvious on this one that it was needed—I could just hear piano filling out the sonic spectrum. Just the language he plays would, I thought, really fit that kind of tune. When I initially composed this song, it was based around the opening chord and the bass line that responds to that chord.

AAJ: Right—and then your flute responds to that.

DM: Exactly. The flute was there to double the bass, to bring that line out and give it more prominence. Now, that whole last section where the melody repeats over and over—that melody wasn't part of the original composition. Originally, that section was just open; it was the same chords and the same number of bars, but there wasn't any melody there. I used to always just improvise the melody. But when I was considering it for the recording, I realized that I needed something stronger there, so I eventually arrived at the melody that ended up on the recording.

AAJ: "Grafton may be the darkest piece on this album. This song's actually got a pretty minimal arrangement. There's just cymbals, bass, and Ben is doing some volume swells, I think. You could almost perform this one by yourself—it's such a saxophone statement. This one feels like an elegy to me.

DM: I was playing with Danilo at the time that 9/11 happened. We'd had a big tour in Europe planned for that October and he decided to cancel it. So I ended up getting called to do a record date up in Vermont and I was staying in Grafton—the recording wasn't in Grafton, but we were staying there. So I was staying in this large house. The first night I shared it with the trumpet player, but then he split and I had it all to myself the second day. There was this organ in the living room, so I was down there and it was just Vermont in October—you're looking out over this back yard with this huge lawn and these beautiful leaves. It was completely quiet and serene, and I sat down at the organ. Basically, this tune came out.

That isn't usually the process for me; it usually takes a long time. But most of this tune came in that first sitting at the organ. Hence the title: that's where the tune was composed. As for the vibe—I can't say whether it was influenced by September 11th or not. It was just what I was feeling at the moment.

AAJ: Finally, we have the title track, "Soar, which is my favorite, and perhaps the archetypal song on this album. It's a dense one—it has that glorious stereo percussion intro and that triplety theme that you play with Luis. The rhythm section is particularly good here, especially under Ben's solo. Then there's that remarkable tag of you, Shane and Luis in three-way counterpoint—very Bach-like. This one makes me glad to be alive.

DM: Well, thank you. The inception of this tune came when I was preparing for a Maria Schneider gig. I was working on this song of hers called "Hang Gliding, which is this piece all about her experience hang-gliding in Brazil. It's a tricky tune to improvise on because it's mixed-meter and there's a lot of background figures that come in at odd places. So I was practicing it. The harmony of her piece has that sort of hopeful, soaring quality, and while I was practicing it I just started playing that triplet figure you were talking about that Luis and I play at the beginning when the melody of the song comes in. So that figure came out, and I just kept working that out, and the tune came from that.

So it was very influenced by Maria's piece. And the beginning was just Pernell improvising. I said, "man, play an intro. Just solo. So that was his thing. The ending was another thing that came as I was preparing for the recording. The idea just came, and I just wrote out that section.

AAJ: You solo a lot. It's a big part of what you're good at, and your solos are quite meaningful. But on these two albums, your solos are generally the longest. Do you ever feel self-conscious about that, ever worry about it?

Donny McCaslin DM: No, not really. When we were at the sessions, I think I was lucky enough to be really caught up in the moment. I didn't really think about length or whatever; I just played what felt right. I just wanted to make sure that it was even for everyone else—even in the sense that you get a chance to hear Pernell, you get a chance to hear Orrin, you get a chance to hear Ben. So it's not sax solo after sax solo. At the same time, the sax solos are there, because that's what I'm hearing. I mean, in other situations I might feel self-conscious about it, but here I just felt like I was in the moment and that's what needed to happen.

AAJ: In a similar vein—you are a remarkable soloist, although I hope people are also aware of your composing skills as well. In any case, you solo as well on other people's material as your own—your solo on "Culture Wars on the new Dave Douglas CD is as good as anything you've done, and of course many people first discovered you in 2004 through your solo on Maria Schneider's "Buleria, Soleá y Rumba.

What's your approach to soloing on a tune, if you have a conscious one? You seem to be able to tap into the emotion of a piece as well as its harmonic content.

DM: I guess I just try to prepare by getting as inside the composition as I can before the recording or before a gig. For example, with Dave's music, I try to practice before we get together to try to learn the tune—not just the harmony that I'm going to play on, but the whole tune. I learn the bass line and both horn parts; I try to get inside the voicings that he's written for piano; I try to get a sense of the whole composition. I try to have all that inform what I play when I'm improvising. With each composition, I try to play that composition—to bring forth elements of that composition in the solo, as opposed to just playing whatever my thing is on whatever tune it is.

I do try to get into the tune and internalize it as much as possible. I find that the more I have the songs internalized, the freer I can be when it gets to the moment of improvising—harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and just vibe-wise: I'm looser and I can just react and not worry about the form because I've already got a sense of what that form is. At least that's the goal for me: when I'm improvising, to be as free as possible, free to tap into that emotional source that you mentioned. I'd like to try to always access that, you know, and be close to the spirit.

AAJ: In addition to playing in Maria Schneider's Orchestra, you've now joined the Dave Douglas Quintet, as evidenced by his great new Meaning and Mystery CD. Tell me about how you got the call to join this band and how it's working out for you.

DM: Dave called me initially to do a fundraiser for John Kerry. Or was it? It might have been for MoveOn.org. It was this gig at Cornelia Street Café with Jim Black and Brad Jones. We had no rehearsal; we went in and just played, and it was really fun. That led to Dave calling about the quintet. Our first gig was in January of last year at the Knitting Factory Festival. There was no rehearsal—all the other guys knew the music so he just sent me charts. I had the CDs already. So I just tried to learn the music as well as I could and we got there and hit. No sound check—we just jumped up and played [laughing].

And the gig went well. So after the gig, he was very complimentary and said he was looking forward to doing a lot more playing and recording. I figured that that meant that we'd do more, and last year we did end up doing maybe a half-dozen gigs. Just one-offs—we played the St. Louis Jazz Festival, a gig at Lincoln Center opening for Wynton, and a couple other things. So we did the record earlier this year and a couple nights in the south.

We're just about to depart for ten days in the States and a week in New York, so we're going to have a good stretch to play. I'm really looking forward to it; it'll be my first time with the band playing consecutive nights, multiple gigs back to back. That's exciting.

AAJ: Maria Schneider's and Dave's bands are pretty special bands to be in for the reason that they actually do tour—meaning the United States, not just Europe. Do you have a personality that deals well with touring?

DM: Yeah. I do enjoy it. I like being out there playing. For me, the enjoyment is often linked to the aesthetic stimulation of the gig. I do enjoy touring in the States. The only drawback for me is not seeing my wife when I'm on the road. That's the tough part—being away from her. She was able to go with me recently when I did a week in Rome, so that was wonderful.

AAJ: You recently got a grant from Chamber Music America to do a composition for them. Tell me about it.

DM: I made my proposal to Chamber Music America around the time I was making Soar, so I talked about taking elements of folk music from Africa, Central and South America, and combining that with my musical language, which is jazz-based but also includes classical, pop and rock—and trying to bring it together. Basically, the concept of Soar, but I'm not doing the exact same thing. So I'm writing stuff based on Afro-Peruvian rhythms and a lot of other things.

I'm happy with what I've written; I'm over halfway done in terms of the compositional process. I would say the concept is similar to Soar, sort of an extension of that, but adding some different elements, folklorically [laughing] speaking. The concerts are August 11 and 12 at the Jazz Gallery, but the songs need to be completed by the end of June.

AAJ: Well, you'd better bring some work with you on the road.

DM: That's the hard part, man—finding time to write when I'm travelling a lot. That's hard.

AAJ: You're a particularly hard-working musician. I looked at your gigs on your website, and the days are pretty filled. There's even one day where you've got two separate gigs with two different bands in one night. It's great to work, but how do you balance the need to work and the need to write, rehearse, and perform your own music?

DM: It's hard. I just try to do the best I can. But it's definitely a challenge. If I work less as a sideman, I'd probably be putting more energy into getting gigs as a leader. And I am trying to get more gigs as a leader—but it is hard to balance everything. But I enjoy playing. Sometimes I feel like I play too much, and I need to say no to certain things more often. But at the same time, I feel like I kind of thrive on playing a lot—I'm interacting with different musicians, I'm playing other people's music. I feel that's a way for me to grow as a musician. I enjoy that.

AAJ: Well, you are a saxophonist, after all.

DM: [laughing] That's right!

AAJ: This is a busy year for you. You've got these two records out now, you're touring with Dave Douglas. Outside of this Chamber Music America project, are you writing anything else?

DM: No, no. Basically all the material I'm writing right now is for that. I am starting to get excited about the possibility of recording the CMA music, so that's on my mind. I'd also like to start writing some swing—well, jazz—well, I don't know how to describe it. Something more like swing tunes, less like Soar. So this summer I'm hoping to get some writing done and be prepared to make a record or two in the next year or so.


Selected Discography

Donny McCaslin, Soar (Sunnyside, 2006)
Dave Douglas, Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf, 2006)
Matthias Lupri Group, Metalix (Summit, 2006)
Donny McCaslin, Give and Go (Criss Cross, 2006)
Gene Ess, Sandbox and Sanctum (SIMP, 2005)
Deanna Witkowski, Length of Days (ArtistShare, 2005)
Greg August, Late August (Self Published, 2005)
Maria Schneider Orchestra, Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)
Donny McCaslin, The Way Through (Arabesque, 2003)
Danilo Pérez, ...Till Then (Verve, 2003)
Luciana Souza, North and South (Sunnyside, 2003)
Alex Sipiagin, Mirrors (Criss Cross, 2003)
Hans Glawischnig, Common Ground (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2003)
Deanna Witkowski, Wide Open Window (Khaeon, 2003)
Mary Ann McSweeney, Swept Away (Sparky 1 Productions, 2003)
Dave Binney, Balance (ACT, 2002)
Bruno Råberg, Chrysalis (Orbis, 2002)
Tony Monaco, Master Chops T (Summit, 2002)
Mary Ann McSweeney, Thoughts of You (Sparky 1 Productions, 2001)
Lan Xang, Hidden Gardens (Naxos, 2000)
Donny McCaslin, Seen From Above (Arabesque, 2000)
Eric Mingus, Um— Er— Uh— (Some Records, 1999)
Ron Kaplan, Lounging Around (Kapland, 1999)
Dave Binney, Free to Dream (Mythology, 1998)
Reuben Wilson, Organ Donor (Jazzateria, 1998)
Lan Xang, Lan Xang (Mythology, 1998)
Donny McCaslin, Exile and Discovery (Naxos, 1998)
Scott Colley, Portable Universe (Freelance, 1998)
Roberta Piket, Unbroken Line (Criss Cross, 1997)
Ken Schaphorst, Purple (Naxos, 1996)
Steps Ahead, Vibe (NYC, 1996)



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