Donny McCaslin: Close to the Spirit

Paul Olson By

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Some friends of mine say, 'Oh Donny, youre the nicest guy. You're always in a good mood; youre always happy.' And I always say to that, 'Thank you for saying that, but you dont really know me that well.'
Donny McCaslin California-born, New York-based saxophonist Donny McCaslin has become an overnight sensation.

Except that he's not—he's been playing tenor (as well as other reeds and flute) with all sorts of heavyweights for years, including Gary Burton, Mike Manieri's Steps Ahead, Brian Blade and Danilo Pérez. McCaslin was a co-founder of the collaborative band Lan Xang; the other members, Dave Binney, Scott Colley and Kenny Wollesen, are old friends and frequent collaborators. McCaslin is a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and his epochal solo on her song "Buleria, Soleá y Rumba on her 2004 Concert in the Garden CD finally seemed to put his name on the A-list of contemporary tenor players.

At this point, however, he'd already released three fine albums under his own name: Exile and Discovery (Naxos, 1998), Seen From Above (Arabesque, 2000) and The Way Through (Arabesque, 2003), each recording featuring McCaslin's emotional, singing saxophone—and his tough, taut compositions, which demonstrate unarguably that he is much more than a thrilling player.

2006 has seen McCaslin tighten his grip on the jazz limelight with the release of two remarkable—and remarkably different—new CDs, Give and Go (Criss Cross) and Soar (Sunnyside). As if that weren't enough, he's joined the Dave Douglas Quintet and can be heard on the new Douglas CD Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Music). I spoke with McCaslin just before he hit the road with Douglas for a US tour.

All About Jazz: This year you've recently released not one but two new CDs: Give and Go on Criss Cross and Soar on Sunnyside. These are the first recordings under your own name since The Way Through, which came out back in 2003. Give and Go is a quartet/quintet session recorded in June of 2005, and Soar's a larger-ensemble production done over a longer period sort of wrapping around that Give and Go session. These two records are quite different from each other. How'd you get in a situation of two somewhat concurrent recording projects?

Donny McCaslin: I had been planning Soar for awhile, and just finding a time period when Antonio [Sanchez] and Scott [Colley] and Dave [Binney] could be there was somewhat of a challenge. So I finally settled on those May dates, which was a time when everyone could do it; I planned it about six months in advance.

I had been in contact with [Criss Cross producer/executive] Gerry [Teekens] over the years; we'd talked about doing something, and he'd asked me about a day to record at one point, maybe a year-and-a-half ago, but it was during a time period where I was on the road, so it didn't work out. But after I had planned the Soar session, Gerry called and offered me a date three weeks after the initial Soar days. So I just decided, "what the heck, I've got the music—I'm just going to go ahead and go for it and do the two of them back to back.

AAJ: Let's talk about Give and Go first. This is, compared to Soar, a pretty straight-ahead one-day jazz session, although every time I listen to it, I like it more—love it, actually—and find more to distinguish it as something really remarkable.

Let's start with the personnel—you're on tenor and a bit of soprano, and we've got John Swana on trumpet, Steve Cardenas on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Gene Jackson on drums. Colley's on Soar as well, and you two go back together to the days of your band Lan Xang. How'd you arrive at this lineup for this session?

DM: Well, first of all, Gerry wanted trumpet on the date. We talked about a few different players, and he had suggested John. I had no problem with that, because I'd played with John a couple times and felt a connection with him musically and really enjoyed playing with him. I'd talked about a couple other guys who I play with more often here in New York.

AAJ: Like Alex Sipiagin?

DM: Yeah, exactly. I suggested Alex, who I play with a lot and who's also a Criss Cross guy. But Gerry wanted John, so I was great with that. I like John's playing. And then I had suggested Gene Jackson, because we'd been playing together a fair amount, and also Steve Cardenas, who was somebody that Gerry Teekens didn't know. But he was cool with using Steve—because Steve knows the music and we have a history of playing together, I knew he was the right guy. And Scott's done a lot of Criss Cross dates, and Gerry was into my using him. I just love playing with Scott, so I was happy he could do it.

AAJ: This may have been a one-day session, but this band sounds tight. I hear the subtle cueing and the responses are always immediate. There's no hesitation and no sloppiness. Had this group had the chance to rehearse?

DM: Yeah. I knew this would be a one-shot deal—make the whole record in one day—and I really didn't want to go in underprepared. I didn't want to go in feeling like things were not just ready to go. So I did prepare in the sense that Steve Cardenas and Gene Jackson did a variety of gigs with my group, mostly at the 55 Bar. I was able to get Scott on board for a concert we did in Brooklyn at this loft space about a month before the record date. And then we did rehearse.

The day before the record date, John Swana came up from Philly, which was great. I had sent John the music maybe a month or so in advance, and it's a little tricky, some of those melodies, and he really did a great job. He'd checked the music out, and when he came to rehearsal he was prepared. So there was a conscious process of playing and working on the music with these guys in whatever setting and group of guys I could arrange.

For example, the tune "Outlaw —we played it at that loft gig, and it just wasn't there yet. I knew there was something I needed to add to the tune. After that gig, I still had some time before the recording and so was able to sit down and add that bass line on the B section. Then on the section at the end of the tune, I was able to add the bass line and then double it with tenor—oh, and add the horn counterline to the melody at the beginning. So it was great to have the time to reflect on the tune after performing it and kind of modify it and get it just right for the recording.

The same thing was true with that song "Drift. That's a tune I had written a few years ago, but as a quartet tune. I didn't have that harmony part really fleshed out, so again, having a little time to experiment with that was nice. At the rehearsal, we were taking turns playing the lead or playing the harmony. Having the time to work that out was really beneficial, because when we go to the date, it was all about doing takes. We didn't have to mess with things. Well, there was one tune—for "The Liberators' Song, that ballad, we tried a couple different form ideas at the recording session, but everything else was pretty much together before we got there.


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