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Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
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.

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