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Interviews

Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
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.



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