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Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
AAJ: There's something about your solo on "O Campeão —I hear some quality in it that reminds me of your solo on your song "Outlaw. In each cases you're fuelled by the structures, forms and musicians, but at same time I feel I can sense you trying to break free of them, to elbow your way towards space. Tell me about this song.

DM: Well, the first section is inspired by [Brazilian jazz legend] Hermeto Pascoal. The feel of the tune—well, I was initially thinking of this Brazilian groove that somebody had shown me at some point. I basically perceived the A section as having a lot of forward motion, a lot of energy: a feeling of being on top and moving ahead. The B section is a total contrast: a half-time feel and the harmony opens up. The A section has a lot of quick harmonic movement, but the B section becomes just one tonality with just some different bass notes and it really opens up there. That's the tension and release of the tune.

I mentioned Hermeto being the inspiration of the song, and Luciana happens to be Hermeto's goddaughter. So I was discussing song titles with her, and she said that Hermeto has a few different nicknames in Brazil: "the magician, "the wizard, and "the champion. "O campeão is "the champion in Portuguese, so that's where the song's title comes from.

AAJ: "Push Up the Sky really embodies the dramatic hopefulness of this album. It's hopeful, but not cloying or sugary. This song's quite grooving, but there's also a calm centeredness to it—it's in no hurry to make its point. This one has some fantastic piano playing from Orrin, which made me interested in your decision on these songs to use piano or exclude it from the arrangements.

DM: Well, I knew this one would be great with piano. And given the way Orrin plays, I thought this would be a good vehicle for him to improvise on because even though there's a form that's being followed, it's still got a pretty open feel. In terms of when to use piano and when not to use it, it seemed pretty clear to me. The tunes that needed piano have piano. Except for one, maybe: in retrospect, I might have added piano to "Soar.

But in lieu of that, we had Ben add some extra guitar tracks, and those sound fantastic, so I'm happy with how it came out. But it pretty obvious on this one that it was needed—I could just hear piano filling out the sonic spectrum. Just the language he plays would, I thought, really fit that kind of tune. When I initially composed this song, it was based around the opening chord and the bass line that responds to that chord.

AAJ: Right—and then your flute responds to that.

DM: Exactly. The flute was there to double the bass, to bring that line out and give it more prominence. Now, that whole last section where the melody repeats over and over—that melody wasn't part of the original composition. Originally, that section was just open; it was the same chords and the same number of bars, but there wasn't any melody there. I used to always just improvise the melody. But when I was considering it for the recording, I realized that I needed something stronger there, so I eventually arrived at the melody that ended up on the recording.

AAJ: "Grafton may be the darkest piece on this album. This song's actually got a pretty minimal arrangement. There's just cymbals, bass, and Ben is doing some volume swells, I think. You could almost perform this one by yourself—it's such a saxophone statement. This one feels like an elegy to me.

DM: I was playing with Danilo at the time that 9/11 happened. We'd had a big tour in Europe planned for that October and he decided to cancel it. So I ended up getting called to do a record date up in Vermont and I was staying in Grafton—the recording wasn't in Grafton, but we were staying there. So I was staying in this large house. The first night I shared it with the trumpet player, but then he split and I had it all to myself the second day. There was this organ in the living room, so I was down there and it was just Vermont in October—you're looking out over this back yard with this huge lawn and these beautiful leaves. It was completely quiet and serene, and I sat down at the organ. Basically, this tune came out.

That isn't usually the process for me; it usually takes a long time. But most of this tune came in that first sitting at the organ. Hence the title: that's where the tune was composed. As for the vibe—I can't say whether it was influenced by September 11th or not. It was just what I was feeling at the moment.

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