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Interviews

Donny McCaslin: Lightness and Gravity

By Published: February 5, 2013
AAJ: These days, "going electric" doesn't have the stigma it had when Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan
b.1941
composer/conductor
appeared with electric instruments at the Newport Folk Festival back in the '60s and was booed. But it's still a potentially destabilizing change for a musician, or for his or her audience. It takes you out of your comfort zone, as you mentioned. How are the rhythmic and harmonic elements of your playing changed in the midst of the "wall of sound" that you hear on this record?

DM: It's different. The challenge for me when I'm improvising over, as you described it, a "wall of sound," in a way I feel like I have to find a different language to draw from, to a certain extent. Of course, I'm still drawing from the language I've played for many years. But I feel like things that would maybe work in a different context, a different kind of record, don't fit this music. In other words, I'm not going to play over some of these songs with a lot of really, really long, flowing melodic lines, be-boppy kinds of things, because they just don't feel right to me stylistically.

So part of this for me is trying to learn, trying to figure out what I can play that feels true to the music, with the wall of sound happening. I think the rhythmic aspect of my language is still a big part of that. But it's different; it's a different kind of rhythmic basis. I'm thinking more about the rhythmic kind of stuff that I hear in electronica music, as opposed to different kinds of things that I've been heavily influenced by. I'm drawing a little bit more from that for my rhythmic sensibility. And also harmonically, too, some of these things are like static vamps; there's different ways to approach it, but sometimes I m trying to think more about textures and sounds on the saxophone and not so much about lines.

It's a little hard for me to put in to words, but I'm trying to find something, a way of playing, that really feels true to the music, and so that's what I'm searching for. Frankly I do that in whatever I'm doing, whether it's a trio setting or something like this, that's so different. And I'm just trying to find what feels honest to me as an improviser. Maybe I'm used to playing with a certain harmonic language and maybe it doesn't feel like that works. Well, what else can I find? Is it a repetitive rhythmic figure? Is it one note on the saxophone but with different colors and textures and fingering to give that note a different quality? And I guess that goes back to being pushed out of my comfort zone with this kind of music and the wall of sound, and it's a kind of challenge for me sometimes: what can I come up with that feels honest and feels strong?

AAJ: You've talked about the influence of electronica. On this record, as with many of you previous releases, there is a strong influence of music and musicians who would not usually be filed under "jazz." Who are some of these musicians, and how is their influence heard or felt on Casting for Gravity?

DM: Before I answer that specifically, I might just say that I think part of the reason that that's how I function is that I grew up playing in my father's band in Santa Cruz, California, and he played a variety [of different kinds of music]. He played Cal Tjader
Cal Tjader
Cal Tjader
1925 - 1982
vibraphone
-esque Latin jazz, Great American Songbook standards, and R&B kind of tunes, "Feel Like Making Love," "Mustang Sally," stuff like that. I kind of grew up with that stuff all coexisting. And in Santa Cruz, there was also a salsa scene. I played in a salsa band as a teenager. I played some rock gigs of course, but also reggae was really popular in Santa Cruz. So I grew up in that kind of environment where all that stuff really coexisted equally. As well as playing primarily Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
music with my high school big band, which was an incredible experience. So all that kind of stuff, I've always kind of felt like I just drew from what was moving me.

Specifically in terms of Casting for Gravity, there's an electronica artist called Aphex Twin—I think his real name is Richard James, he's from the UK—his music, especially a record of his called Drukqs (Warner Bros., 2005). There's maybe half a dozen tracks on that record that I just listened to over and over: just absorbing his rhythmic language, checking out the melodic thing and what was happening with that. So that was a big influence, the primary influence, if I were to say.

Also Boards of Canada; I obviously covered one of their songs on the record ["Alpha and Omega"]. The record that it was on, called Geogaddi (Warp, 2002), I listened to a lot. Squarepusher I've listened to for many years—big influence. There's a couple people I'm forgetting. OK, there's a group of DJs in London called Fabric, I think, and there's a series of records called FabricLive (Fabric, 2001-present); they do some remixes, basically dub stuff, and I listened to that record a lot in preparing for this.

Also, the Roots; just checking out ?uestlove and the different drum sounds on a couple of their records was really informative for me. And then some of the earlier influences that I still go back to are Tower of Power and the Headhunters. In terms of electronica, it's those other artists. Plus, there's some electronica, pop electronica, folks like Imogen Heap who I like, you know, it's more conventional. But in truth, for this record, it's the DJ guys. Oh, yeah—Venetian Snares is the other guy; I listen to him a lot.


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