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Interviews

Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
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.



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