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Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
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.

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