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Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
AAJ: Well, it feels like a very smart way to begin this album. Because it begins with you and a percussionist—so, okay, there's percussion on this record. Then your sax is doubled—okay, there's overdubbing on this record. Then there's Luciana and Ben and that extra percussion—it's as if the musicians are walking onto the stage.

DM: Exactly. It's also nice because it's short. It's not an eight-minute epic piece. It's still a lot of information to take in, but like you say, it's kind of an appetizer. It introduces everything; it introduces the individual characters just as you describe. So it's a nice first tune.

AAJ: It's also a good song.

DM: Yeah. Good song, good vibe. It's funny—from the feedback I've gotten, people do mention that song and how they like it. And that was the tune that almost didn't make it.

AAJ: "Be Love is really elegant and swaying—Scott Colley is particularly great here, but so are Antonio and Pernell, and those two play together remarkably here. Neither is in the other's way, and they work together almost telepathically. The song is built around that five-note vamp phrase, which comes back prominently in the tag against the drum breakdown Your solo is tremendous, with nice comping from Ben, and his solo is equally wonderful. Tell me about this one, please.

DM: Like a lot of my songs, this one was kind of borne out of just practicing. That initial figure of the melody [singing it] was all I had. And I had that for a while—written on a piece of paper. It just sat there for awhile and then one day I happened to play it, and then I started hearing the groove, and one thing led to another.

When I perform live, it seems like it's one of the most appreciated tunes; people seem to respond to that tune a lot. I feel blessed that it happened to come! It's really fun to play on. What I especially love about the recorded version is the fact that there's so much going on—a lot of layers to the story. I love Luciana's countermelody. She's essentially just doubling what Ben does but she comes in a little later and the voice really adds something and she just sounds great on it.

Then there's that whole thing at the end with Antonio soloing. He plays a great solo and he's playing this great stuff, but there's also so much space so you can also hear what Luciana's doing—which is also due to Mike Marciano's great mixing. There are so many elements in there and it's all clear and you can hear it all—I'm just really happy with how it came out.

AAJ: Monder's solo really gives it this release as well. I very much enjoy that moment that he begins soloing with that liquid electric tone of his.

DM: That's another tune where I solo over the whole form of the song. Then we lay on that five-note theme that you mentioned for Ben's solo, and he can take it to that other place where he puts on that distortion and just gets all the way down. It's another example of using these different sections to create different environments to improvise in.

AAJ: That's smart. These are long songs and they would get monotonous if you didn't mix it up a bit.

DM: Totally. I'm really conscious of that. Binney and I talked about that, and we really tried to make that a priority—to try to make the record interesting in a lot of ways. That was another great thing about having Luciana as another instrument in this recording—like on "Hero as a Boy, the way she doubles the melody. It's beautiful, and it's subtle, but it adds a lot and makes it more interesting to listen to, maybe even for people who aren't such jazz fans. I think they can listen to something like that and say, "wow, that's kind of cool.

AAJ: Speaking of "Hero as a Boy —this one is a bit spookier than some of the other pieces. It's got a darker mood. It's got just Antonio on kit—no extra percussionist. It starts with Ben on that acoustic arpeggio you mentioned, which is doubled by Orrin Evans' piano, and you're right: it is beautiful. But it's also kind of scary before you come in with the melody which is, characteristically, doubled by Luciana Souza's vocal. There's a constricted feeling in this one, almost a claustrophobia, that dissipates with your solo. Then the song opens up, or so it feels to me.

I think this one and "Grafton are really important to the album; without them, it's all the big, optimistic, epic ones and the mood would be a little too undiluted.

DM: This is one of the tunes that I wrote around the time when I was playing with Danilo, and I think this is a good example of what I was talking about earlier in terms of the concept of the record. The arpeggio that Ben plays and the melody that I come with are very, let's say, ECM-ish. It reminds me of ECM stuff. But what Scott plays on that is a timbale; his bass line is coming from a chacarera groove. Chacarera is this Argentinian folk rhythm in three. Now if a drummer is playing a chacarera, it sounds weird, so Antonio is playing kind of loose—but Scott is providing that folkloric element that ties it to the earth while we're playing this floating thing on top. So that's how the tune came to be.

And the vibe is kind of intense. That's just a reflection [laughing] of how I feel. I sort of had, in some ways, a troubled childhood. So it's a reflection of that emotional angst and suffering that happened along the way. That's where that's coming from. You know, some friends of mine say, "oh Donny, you're the nicest guy. You're always in a good mood; you're always happy. And I always say to that, "thank you for saying that, but you don't really know me that well. Because that's something I exude on the outside. Inside, I'm pretty intense, my childhood was rough, and I carry a lot of that pain inside me. I've been working on it, but it's intense.

Now, the song isn't trying to say that I'm the hero. It's more of that archetypical hero of a boy who suffers and goes through abusive situations but comes out on the other side okay—or at least doing the best he can with what he has [laughing].

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