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Donny McCaslin: Bowie Deepened The Relationships In My Band

Nenad Georgievski By

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Wherever the boundaries were in music, in most cases, they have perished and are no more. Jazz has always been a music of exploration and taking chances and as a result, has benefited from the dialogues with other music, be it folk, rock, classical or electronic. Saxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin certainly doesn't believe in boundaries. He is one of the handful musicians who uses different strands as a launching point for further exploration. His recent records Fast Future (Greenleaf, 2015) and Casting for Gravity (Greenleaf, 2012) were strong critical favorites and busy intersections where performances escalate into fiery forms with unique melodies and harmonies and delicate rhythmic delights. Some of the unusual sonics and ideas on his records are miles away from standard jazz but obviously the music he creates with his band cannot exist on one stylistic pillar.

And then one day singer David Bowie suddenly appeared in his life and nothing was the same from then on. Firstly, he showed up at the McCaslin Quartet's performance in 2014 at the 55 Bar in New York which was followed by a session with Maria Schneider's Orchestra for one song, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)." He re-appeared again in January 2015 with an invitation for his band to record for what would be Bowie's swan song and masterpiece, Blackstar. Donny McCaslin's Quartet and guitarist Ben Monder are the last in that famed lineage and obviously, he assembled some of the finest talents in contemporary jazz. McCaslin is also known as a sideman to some of the finest composers such as trumpeter Dave Douglas or the previously mentioned Maria Schneider. The difference this time is that the band leader came from another galaxy. Much like trumpeter Miles Davis so did Bowie had a gift for choosing unruly men as collaborators who would challenge, stretch, energize and accomplish his vision over the years. He brought the music for the band which was freed to do it in their style and take it elsewhere.

But Bowie's premature death only shortly after the record was released revealed this record's true nature, full strength, and complexity. He has never aimed at a clear meaning which will leave people deciphering the songs until time immemorial. Blackstar is a true masterpiece and an appropriate swansong by a cultural icon. Several months after, when the music for the play Lazarus: (Original Cast Recording) was released and it also included three songs that were a leftovers from the Blackstar sessions.

The Quartet's Beyond Now is music that has benefited from these recent vanguard investigations and experiences. As such, it carries great emotional weight. It's a fitting tribute to Bowie but it also shows the band's borderless approach to music. It also shows new maturity and strength reflected in the new compositions and approach to covers. As on McCaslin's previous seven albums, saxophonist David Binney took on the production duties on Beyond Now. This record takes McCaslin's interest in combining group interaction with post-production a step forward. The band takes the sounds and influences and then they personalize and adapt them into their own language. It has a kaleidoscopic take on jazz, a kind of On the Corner for the 21st century. Last year, we spoke to McCaslin about the making of Beyond Now and the impact that the experience of working with Bowie has had on him and the band.

All About Jazz: Beyond Now is an intriguing and diverse record. What were some of the ideas, concepts and the inspiration behind it?

Donny McCaslin: The original music on Beyond Now was written in the summer of 2015, just a few months after finishing the work on Blackstar. So, as I had been immersed in that music for the months leading up to it, David's music, it was still very much in my mind. I was also listening to a lot to Deadmou5, a record of his that has a song called "Coelacanth I" on it (While 1<2, Virgin EMI). I was also listening to a lot of Aphex Twin and his record Syro, and was also listening to To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. So, looking back on influences, those four things were the main things that were kind of present. The version of "Coelacanth I" that we did I loved the version on Deadmou5's record and that was a song that I felt like I can hear us doing something interesting with. So, that was the impetus for choosing that song. With "Warsawa," what happened, we were playing a week at the Village Vanguard in New York City in January this year, David Bowie had just passed away and as a band, we were talking how could we pay a tribute to him from the bandstand. We talked about different songs and Jason Lindner suggested "Warsawa." We tried it on the sound check and we ended up playing it every night after every set during that week and it was really an emotional and difficult time. That song was a way to channel some of those feelings into music from the bandstand for which I was very grateful. And when we were doing that week and I knew I wanted to record this on the new record. It's a very emotional song for me personally.

And then another cover that we did was "A Small Plot of Land," also a Bowie song. It came about when I was emailing back and forth with Beyond Now's" producer David Binney about different song ideas. That one was on his lists and I was not familiar with that record (Outside, Music on Vinyl 1995) before. He said that suggestion over, I listened to that song and felt it would just be a right fit for us. On the original version, there is like a minute of the band playing before David comes in with his vocal. There is so much space on that anthem and was something interesting to work with. I love the way the dynamics build throughout the track and it was very compelling to me. The melodies were strong.

The other two cover songs, "Remain" and "New York City," (digital bonus track) were also suggestions by David Binney, as we were talking about cover tunes and again I really loved both tunes. With "Remain," the original version, it was very compelling to me the way the dynamics build throughout the track, The melodies were strong and I thought it would sound really good on saxophone. I kind of heard myself playing it. That was the choice there, and "New York City." I love that tune.

AAJ: What was David Binney's role on this album? He has been your producer of choice on many of your past records.

DM:Part of his role was what I just described. He was helping with choosing some of the cover songs and then also a part of his role was to send him the original songs I was writing and have played it all for him, in order to give his feedback on anything that comes to mind—the song form, the orchestration or what have you. Then, he was involved in a lot of the details like we were talking about the set up in the studio, how to achieve the sonic environment that we wanted, so he was part of that, the discussion along with me and Mike Marciano who engineered. Then, when we recorded with David at Zeta studio and he was providing us with direct feedback on what he was hearing. We'll play a tape, he'll say something. We'll try another one, how about this? I remember for e.g. for the song "Beyond Now," we had done a couple of versions and we had a version that had sounded good and David said "Why don't you guys do another one and go for something more edgy."

He made a couple of suggestions and we did one more version and that's what we really captured it. So he really prompted us to get us at that intensity. Also, when we finished the basic recording, he took the music back to his apartment, on his computer, and he worked on editing it. So he will sometimes correct things, move things a bit. For e.g. on "Small Plot of Land" Jason Lindner played synth bass on that and Tim Lefebvre's playing had more like a guitar role so the solo that you hear is Tim Lefebvre, but David Binney added the synth stuff that sounds like screams in the track. That's a great example of a track where he did a lot of production work. He added strings. On "Remain" he added a lot of synths. So basically he takes the stuff to his place and works on it. The track is given to be mastered and then David Binney is listening to it as I am and we are talking about details, the order of the songs. He is very involved in that and he has a really big role in the production of this.

AAJ:Beyond Now was also influenced by David Bowie's Blackstar. How did the experience of working on Blackstar and its aftermath influenced this record and inevitably your band? What has that meant for your musical development?

DM: I would say, to the first part of your question that it deepened our relationships musically. It deepened our level of interaction with each other and our familiarity with each other's playing. We spent so much time in the studio playing David Bowie's music. It also deepened our friendships as well, because it was just so much time spent in a very special environment. It kind of deepened the relationships musically and personally.

AAJ: How did you get involved working on Blackstar?

DM: David was working with Maria Schneider and they were getting together to write a piece called "Sue (or In a Season of Crime)." There was going to be Maria's big band and David singing. So it was in their time of working together that I guess he was describing to Maria kind of what he was hearing in terms of a rhythmic approach to the song and Maria said "hey, let me play you something" and she played him a record of mine called Casting for Gravitywhich is with the band and that Dave Binney produced it. She played him that record and suggested to him he do something with me. So evidently he got the record and then emailed her and told her "Hey, they are playing in town soon" and Maria said "Oh Great, let's go," so she brought David down to the 55 Bar to hear us play. I knew they were coming and I think I told Mark Guiliana, but I don't think I told the other guys. I can't really remember but that's when he heard us play. A week later I met him for the first time at the first rehearsal with Maria for Maria and David's song. The usual drummer in Maria's band couldn't make the recording date so I had suggested that she use Mark. So Mark knew what was going on. I guess he knew that David was coming down. That's when me and Mark met David for the first time at that rehearsal a week after that gig at 55 Bar. Very shortly after that he sent me an email with the first song and asking if we wanted to record with him.

AAJ: Looking back at the sessions for Blackstar, what was the prevailing mood during the sessions? How did Bowie and producer Tony Visconti direct the band's strengths into the record that we all know?

DM: Basically, David had sent me a demos from the songs which I distributed to the band and the day before we had the first recording me and the band got together to run through everything. So basically we were ready to go and when we got to the studio we just listened to the demo of the first song and then we went out and we just started rehearsing. We rehearsed a little bit and then we just started recording. It was a very fluid environment. We listened and we just started playing and I think Tony and David both set this environment where they were very affirming of what we were doing. David wanted us to do what we do. He wanted us to take chances. He wanted us to go for whatever we were hearing and he already provided this context that I think from our perspective was very affirming. We started from the demos and then we added and it kind of went from there. I added a lot of orchestration with the woodwinds and I added some lines. I did a lot of work, but it was based on what he already sent. It was coming out of the spirit of what he already sent. It was a very fluid environment.

AAJ: What was your first reaction upon hearing the final album?

DM: It was very overwhelming and very emotional because I heard it in November of 2015. So the last thing I'd heard was in April and it was "Blackstar" and "Tis a Pity she is a Whore" or things I was overdubbing on that. So to hear it after seven months—even the mix is amazing on that record and the mastering—everything. Every detail is amazing. To hear all these details of how Tony and David have combed through what we have done and what choices they made in terms of what to leave in and what voices he added. Just to hear the totality of it was overwhelming and heart ticking. There is so much information there, but it was also really emotional because it sounds so great and it was something I will never forget. So I'm there and I'm listening to it and hear all those elements in place and it was amazing.

AAJ: A while ago the music for the Lazarus play was published which included three leftovers from the Blackstar session. These do not seem to have the exact feel as the songs on Blackstar.

DM: Those were a three song that we recorded as part of the Blackstar sessions and the song "No Plan" was the one that we did I think in the first week of recording in January but we revisited it at a later time. I think it was in March. It was near the end of the group recording sessions and it might have been the last song we recorded. There are various versions of it. Part of it was we were working with different orchestrations and so Tim did some versions on an acoustic bass and that's what you are hearing on that record and there's one with different woodwinds, orchestrations, and arrangements that I had done. And then Ben Monder was with us in March so he was there. My point is that one thing that was different with most of the songs on Blackstar was that they were first or second takes. But "No Plan" was more like we did six or seven versions because we did maybe two or three in January and then another three or four in March. And it was one of the later version that they used because Tim is playing acoustic bass. Tony was suggesting different orchestrations and stuff so we gave him different options. "Killing a Little Time" was also a song that we recorded in January and then re-recorded later. I think part of it was that David was still tweaking the lyrics and one major difference I remember from the first version to the later version was that we also changed the synth sound pretty radically from one to the next. And the other song is called "When I Met You" and I think we did it in a couple of takes. Honestly, I don't remember a lot of the specifics about that song, other than I really like it (laughing).

AAJ: "Killing a Little Time" is probably most radical of the songs there as it features speed-metal kind of drumming. It's a dynamic track and yet it really stands out compared to everything from the record.

I think Mark might say he was just playing what felt right for the song. He was trying to serve the song. On that, that is another tune where we had a demo that David started with a drum loop so David had already provided us with his frame of reference rhythmically for what he was imagining for the tune. I'm sure Mark used that as a launching point for what he played.

AAJ: It's been more than a year since you released Fast Future. That record was my point of entry into your music even before Blackstar. One of the most distinctive elements of this record is the busy intersection between various and unusual influences, the mercurial arrangements and brilliant playing. What sort of perspective do you have on that record now?

DM: Actually, when David and Maria heard us at 55 Bar, that gig was our preparation gig to go into the studio to make Fast Future. I was trying to go further into electronic realm with this record. Fast Future was even more of an example of David Binney's production skills. He worked a lot on that record by creating the sonic environment that you hear when you listen to it—synths and things. We had done Casting for Gravity before that and that record is very aggressive and hard hitting. It's intense. So part of the thing for Fast Future for me was I wanted it to be mellower in a way and a more lyrical response to Casting for Gravity. For example, the song "No Lies" a great song by Baths and it was another suggestion by Binney. I chose the song and he brought the record. It was like "Oh, have you heard this?" There's a lot of great tunes on this record and there were various of tunes I considered "Faindropping" and another one but I realized "No Lies" was the best fit for us. And anyway, "Midnight Light" might have been the first song I wrote for that record. It's a ballad and I thought since Casting for Gravity had been so intense, I'd start with a ballad. Give the listener a break. I thought that the interplay between the band on that song was great. I was so happy with Binney with what he did on this song. It was a mellower and more lyrical record. However, I feel like hearing what happened after, we already talked about that and the recording, and then so Beyond Now felt like the band was at a new level, a new level of interaction and we wanted to capture the emotional intensity that we get when we play live.

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