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Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

By Published: May 29, 2006
AAJ: Finally, we have the title track, "Soar, which is my favorite, and perhaps the archetypal song on this album. It's a dense one—it has that glorious stereo percussion intro and that triplety theme that you play with Luis. The rhythm section is particularly good here, especially under Ben's solo. Then there's that remarkable tag of you, Shane and Luis in three-way counterpoint—very Bach-like. This one makes me glad to be alive.

DM: Well, thank you. The inception of this tune came when I was preparing for a Maria Schneider gig. I was working on this song of hers called "Hang Gliding, which is this piece all about her experience hang-gliding in Brazil. It's a tricky tune to improvise on because it's mixed-meter and there's a lot of background figures that come in at odd places. So I was practicing it. The harmony of her piece has that sort of hopeful, soaring quality, and while I was practicing it I just started playing that triplet figure you were talking about that Luis and I play at the beginning when the melody of the song comes in. So that figure came out, and I just kept working that out, and the tune came from that.

So it was very influenced by Maria's piece. And the beginning was just Pernell improvising. I said, "man, play an intro. Just solo. So that was his thing. The ending was another thing that came as I was preparing for the recording. The idea just came, and I just wrote out that section.

AAJ: You solo a lot. It's a big part of what you're good at, and your solos are quite meaningful. But on these two albums, your solos are generally the longest. Do you ever feel self-conscious about that, ever worry about it?

Donny McCaslin DM: No, not really. When we were at the sessions, I think I was lucky enough to be really caught up in the moment. I didn't really think about length or whatever; I just played what felt right. I just wanted to make sure that it was even for everyone else—even in the sense that you get a chance to hear Pernell, you get a chance to hear Orrin, you get a chance to hear Ben. So it's not sax solo after sax solo. At the same time, the sax solos are there, because that's what I'm hearing. I mean, in other situations I might feel self-conscious about it, but here I just felt like I was in the moment and that's what needed to happen.

AAJ: In a similar vein—you are a remarkable soloist, although I hope people are also aware of your composing skills as well. In any case, you solo as well on other people's material as your own—your solo on "Culture Wars on the new Dave Douglas CD is as good as anything you've done, and of course many people first discovered you in 2004 through your solo on Maria Schneider's "Buleria, Soleá y Rumba.

What's your approach to soloing on a tune, if you have a conscious one? You seem to be able to tap into the emotion of a piece as well as its harmonic content.

DM: I guess I just try to prepare by getting as inside the composition as I can before the recording or before a gig. For example, with Dave's music, I try to practice before we get together to try to learn the tune—not just the harmony that I'm going to play on, but the whole tune. I learn the bass line and both horn parts; I try to get inside the voicings that he's written for piano; I try to get a sense of the whole composition. I try to have all that inform what I play when I'm improvising. With each composition, I try to play that composition—to bring forth elements of that composition in the solo, as opposed to just playing whatever my thing is on whatever tune it is.

I do try to get into the tune and internalize it as much as possible. I find that the more I have the songs internalized, the freer I can be when it gets to the moment of improvising—harmonically, melodically, rhythmically and just vibe-wise: I'm looser and I can just react and not worry about the form because I've already got a sense of what that form is. At least that's the goal for me: when I'm improvising, to be as free as possible, free to tap into that emotional source that you mentioned. I'd like to try to always access that, you know, and be close to the spirit.

AAJ: In addition to playing in Maria Schneider's Orchestra, you've now joined the Dave Douglas Quintet, as evidenced by his great new Meaning and Mystery CD. Tell me about how you got the call to join this band and how it's working out for you.

DM: Dave called me initially to do a fundraiser for John Kerry. Or was it? It might have been for It was this gig at Cornelia Street Café with Jim Black and Brad Jones. We had no rehearsal; we went in and just played, and it was really fun. That led to Dave calling about the quintet. Our first gig was in January of last year at the Knitting Factory Festival. There was no rehearsal—all the other guys knew the music so he just sent me charts. I had the CDs already. So I just tried to learn the music as well as I could and we got there and hit. No sound check—we just jumped up and played [laughing].

And the gig went well. So after the gig, he was very complimentary and said he was looking forward to doing a lot more playing and recording. I figured that that meant that we'd do more, and last year we did end up doing maybe a half-dozen gigs. Just one-offs—we played the St. Louis Jazz Festival, a gig at Lincoln Center opening for Wynton, and a couple other things. So we did the record earlier this year and a couple nights in the south.

We're just about to depart for ten days in the States and a week in New York, so we're going to have a good stretch to play. I'm really looking forward to it; it'll be my first time with the band playing consecutive nights, multiple gigs back to back. That's exciting.

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