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Interviews

Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
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.



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