Donny McCaslin: Feeling the Spirit
Donny's burgeoning talent attracted wider attention when he had the opportunity of playing at the Monterey Jazz Festival. This came about through a programme that allows high school students to audition for the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All Star Big Band. This band has been directed since 1981 by Bill Berry, who remembered that when he first met Donny, 'He was already an exceptional player. He was the first student to be selected to play in the band all four years of his high school career. Only two other students have done this in the past twenty years.' The band would go to Monterey about a week before the festival began where it rehearsed every day with Bill Berry.
'As you can imagine,' Donny recalls, 'just being there was a great experience. We had passes and we could see everybody who was playing throughout the weekend. So for a fifteen or sixteen year old kid it was pretty exciting.'
Shortly after his first visit to Monterey, Donny appeared in a television programme about promising young musicians and, later, he toured Japan and Europe with all-star youth ensembles, developing a solid background and winning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in 1984.
'That was where my mother helped me so much. She was great. People always talk about my dad, because of the music, but the scholarship to Berklee would only cover part of the tuition. So my mother worked at the problem, because we didn't have any money, and she became the chief fundraiser and she really deserves a lot of credit for helping make it happen for me.'
During his time at Berklee, Donny attracted a great deal of favourable notice in the Boston area. His influences and teachers at this time included saxophonists Joe Viola, Billy Pierce, and George Garzone, trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, and vibraphonist Gary Burton who had also heard him some time earlier. During his last year at Berklee, Burton invited him to join his quintet, with which Donny played for four years touring North and South America, Europe, and Japan. He also played with Burton on an SS Norway jazz cruise. Reporting in the Los Angeles Times, Leonard Feather observed how 'McCaslin amazed the audience one night by virtually stealing the show in a saxophone jam featuring Phil Woods, Red Holloway, Flip Phillips, and David "Fathead" Newman.'
Recalling this occasion, Donny says: 'What happened was that I was with Gary Burton's band and we played maybe three or four times but they also had this saxophone summit one afternoon. I was invited to participate because I was playing saxophone in Gary's band. It was an inspiration to hear those guys and be around them for a week. It was really inspiring but in a situation like this it was terrifying too. I was on last, actually, and to go on after they'd played, and after they'd played so much beautiful music, was definitely a hard thing to do. But people were very happy with what I did. It was really very nice.'
New York in the 90s ...
In 1991 Donny moved to New York City where he joined Mike Manieri's Steps Ahead, appearing on the group's album, Vibe, which includes two compositions he co- wrote. During the 1990s he performed with many bands, including the Mingus Big Band, Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Lan Xang (a cutting edge original music group with David Binney, Scott Colley and Kenny Wollesen), George Gruntz's Concert Jazz Band, the Herbie Nichols Project, and the Newport Jazz Orchestra. In May 1996, he premiered Ken Schaphorst's composition 'Uprising', which was written for him, and which was subsequently recorded on Schaphorst's 1999 album, Purple. During the Spring of 2000, Donny toured European venues with drummer Brian Blades' Fellowship band, and also with trumpeter Tom Harrell.
Not that this heady company has made Donny forget where he started: 'My dad is still playing, he's got a trio. And every time I go home, I go and sit in when I get the chance. It's great, really wonderful.'
For his recording debut as leader, Exile and Discovery (Naxos 86014-2), Donny teamed up with pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Billy Drummond. The set skilfully combines standards, 'Tenderly', 'Speak Low', established jazz songs, Benny Golson's 'Along Came Betty', 'Isfahan' by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, Monk's 'Bye Ya', with unusual (and here unaccompanied) works such as Astor Piazolla's 'Etudes Tanguistiques', and some of Donny's originals. With several compositions already to his credit by the time of this album, Donny was seeking to expand this facet of his career.