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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.

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