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Donny McCaslin: Trio Toolbox

By Published: September 8, 2008
AAJ: It seems like a record like this requires a lot of trust between the musicians.

DM: That's absolutely accurate. I was alluding to that when I was talking about the communication and the magic being created in those moments. Trust facilitates that, with me feeling like I can relax and listen to what the guys are doing and just respond, react, go back and forth. That definitely takes a good amount of trust.

AAJ: You won the 2008 Down Beat Rising Star poll, which made me chuckle because this is about your 20th year on the scene. Do you feel like a wider audience is coming to appreciate your music because of the exposure you've had?

DM: Yeah, I think so. I've noticed in the last three or four years that it feels like I've gotten more recognition. My CDs are selling more than they were before, and I'm getting more requests for private lessons. I'm reading more press coverage about my gigs. I think part of that is the Grammy nomination that I got a few years ago with Maria Schneider's group. Playing with her group is a very high-visibility gig. And playing with Dave Douglas has been such a great opportunity for me musically, and it's gotten me a lot more exposure.

AAJ: What is Dave Douglas like as a bandleader?

DM: It's interesting. The group has a really large songbook. I think when I joined they had been in existence for maybe five or six years. [Saxophonist] Chris Potter had been in the band. I think there were maybe 40 tunes in the book. Dave's a very prolific composer. In the meantime there are 20 or 30 more tunes since I've been in the group.

Dave doesn't like to repeat himself in terms of set lists. He likes to draw from the full book. It's been great to learn his music and to feel like I get inside his compositional process and learn from that. And then to have to be able to play all these different tunes on any given night. I really enjoy that. As a bandleader, he's constantly trying to shuffle the set list. He also likes to make the band feel uncomfortable sometimes, as far as playing a tune we're not comfortable with and seeing what we'll do with it. That's something he enjoys. As I mentioned before, he's a very prolific composer, so he's often bringing in new material. It's a challenge to keep learning it and adding it to the book.

Donny McCaslin

Dave also really likes to take different fragments of each tune and use them as background figures. He's really serious about the music he writes, and that creates an environment where we're all trying to get into his tunes and extract the most important aspects of those tunes.

AAJ: I was talking with a friend recently about how some performances start off with a lot of difficulties and then turn into some of the best performances. What is it about being off-balance that brings out surprising things?

DM: It's that sometimes you fall into a comfort zone with certain tunes where you have things that you played before—that you're used to playing over a certain chord or a certain progression or feel. You feel like you can rely on it. Then all of a sudden, playing a tune that you don't really know or don't feel like you have a grasp on, it can pull you back to being right in the moment.

Sometimes, when you're forced to play things that you're not as comfortable with, you can play something that you hadn't thought of. Of course, that can happen when you're playing a song that you've played a million times. But I think what [Dave] digs about it is that something new can happen because we're all intently trying to find our way through the chart.

And even though you're concentrating so much, you're also not over-thinking. You're just reacting because you don't know the song that well. Sometimes, in those moments, you're just playing and you don't have time to think, "Did I file my taxes this week?" or "What I am I going to eat after the gig?" None of that comes into play because you're just trying to completely react to what's in front of you.

AAJ: What was Dave like as the head honcho of a record label?

DM: It was good. As I mentioned at the beginning, he came to me with not only the offer for a record, but also an idea of what to do concept-wise. We also talked about touring. In all of our subsequent conversations, he was positive, upbeat, supportive, excited. As things got more specific in terms of tunes, he was very supportive. It was great. He was unable to come to the actual recording session because he was in Europe, but I felt like he gave me a green light to do whatever I wanted. I felt like he trusted me to do my thing.

AAJ: This album was produced by another very fine saxophonist, David Binney. What was David's role?

DM: David's role actually started before we recorded. He's produced a few of my records. We've been friends for a long time and have a really good relationship. The process for us is usually that we get together at some point, and I'll play him all the material that I'm considering. We'll talk about form, arrangements and orchestration. He also came by one of the live gigs that we did and gave us some feedback. In the studio, he was there listening and offering feedback after every take. He always has great things to say. It's wonderful to have somebody who I trust like that listening. So if there's a situation where I'm not sure, he'll always tell me exactly what he's thinking and be totally honest about it.

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