Donny McCaslin: Feeling the Spirit


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...It isn't the notes that you play, it's how you play them...
When I play, I try to remember what this music means to me as a listener. When I hear something that really speaks to me on an emotional level — like, say, a solo by Lester Young — that is when I know what this is all about.

The speaker is Donny McCaslin, who was born on August 11, 1966, in Santa Clara, California. Although his parents, Don and Jeanina, were divorced when he was a small child, their continuing support and encouragement for his musical ambitions turned what might have been a divisive and disturbing childhood into a secure base for a musical future that has already brought international acclaim.

This conversation took place in May 2000, when Donny was touring Europe with the Brian Blade Fellowship Band.

The beginning...

'My father was a professional musician, playing vibraphone and electric piano, and he had a regular gig leading a small band that played at a shopping mall in Santa Cruz. I was living with my mother but I would see my father one day a week when he would pick me up and take me down to the mall where I'd help him set up the vibes and the piano. Then, because I was too young to walk around on my own in the mall, I would just sit there. He had a chair for me in the middle of the bandstand and I would sit and listen to them play for three or four hours.

'They played a combination of standards and Duke Ellington's music, that kind of American popular songbook. Songs like 'My Funny Valentine', 'Autumn Leaves', 'Take the "A" Train' and 'Satin Doll'. And also some Latin jazz, Cal Tjader-ish stuff. Afterwards we'd take down the instruments and then go play basketball and have dinner. That was how the day was spent and that was how I became exposed to music. But I didn't really start playing until I was twelve. That was when I made an impulsive decision and chose the tenor saxophone. Partly, I think it was because the saxophonist in my dad's band was a very charismatic guy. He had this wild, tie-dyed T-shirt and the people loved it when he played his solos. So, to me, at that age, this was very attractive and exciting. And it was great, because as soon as I told my father that I wanted to play he bought me a horn and I got into the beginners' orchestra at my junior high school. Dad arranged for me to have lessons with the saxophonist in his band, Brad Hecht, and it just kind of went from there. Dad would come over to my mother's place where we had a barn up behind the house and he'd take his electric piano up there, set it up and he would comp for me for hours.

'At this time I wasn't really studying music formally. I was in the band at school and I was taking private lessons once a week but that was pretty much the extent of it. When I finished junior high school I knew that there was a really great high school band programme in the next city, Aptos. So, although I lived with my mother in Santa Cruz, I used my father's address so that I could get into that particular high school and join their jazz band. The head of the band was Don Keller, who was a friend of Bill Berry who regularly works with high school bands in California. It was a great band. The book comprised a lot of Ellington charts, some of them originals that Bill had gotten when he was in the Ellington band. It was amazing. I was fourteen years old, I could barely play, and yet there I was, playing some of the greatest music ever written.

'I was also listening to records. I started with Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and also Paul Gonsalves, who was a big influence on me at that stage, because we were listening to that music and playing those charts. Later, I also listened to musicians on other instruments. I love piano players, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington. I feel like I've learned a lot listening to piano players. Trumpet players, of course: Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw and Clifford Brown.'

At the time he was growing up, not many of Donny's contemporaries were listening to jazz.

'I never listened to radio so I wasn't somebody who was always listening to pop music. At home I think I mostly listened to jazz but there were also certain pop bands that I liked. I grew up in California, so I listened a lot to the Beach Boys, a California band. And I remember I was fan of the hard rock band, AC/DC. I liked them a lot, and Chuck Berry and things like that. But once I got into jazz it just snowballed and I primarily listened to jazz around that time. And it was strange because sometimes I wouldn't even know the songs that my friends, who weren't musicians and were very engrossed in pop culture, were listening to.'

The Monterey Jazz Festival...

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.

'On my first CD there were three originals and then I have this CD coming out around August 2000 which is all originals except for 'September Song' and I'm going to do another record soon after that which will also be mostly originals. I guess in terms of writing, it's one of those things where I feel I can best express all the things that I have been doing so far. It's as if my writing is like the sum total of all my listening and studying and the influences on my playing.'

Update ...

Since this interview was conducted in summer 2000, Donny has been kept very busy. 'From fall 2000 until March 2002, I was touring with Danilo Perez and the Motherland Project. Since then, among the highlights was being featured at Lincoln Center in January 2003 on Maria Schneider's newly commissioned work for her Jazz Orchestra. We did two nights opposite Toshiko Akiyoshi's band. Also, I've been to Japan four times in the past year and a half with Monday Michiru's group that features Alex Sipiagin, Dave Kikoski, Jonathan Blake, Boris Kozlov and myself. And I played and taught at the Aarua Jazz festival in Switzerland this past April. Lastly, I've been playing at the 55 Bar in New York City once a month with my own group and that's featured such musicians as Adam Cruz, Ben Monder, Gene Jackson, Boris Kozlov, Gary Versace, Drew Gress, Jeff Ballard, Jon Hebert, among others. In terms of recordings, I'm featured on Danilo Perez's new disc that comes out in the fall of 2003, also, Luciana Souza's North and South, Maryann McSweeny's Swept Away, and Deanna Witkowski's Wide Open Window, which is on the Khaeon label. My own new CD, The Way Through, on Arabesque Records, was released on 7 October 2003.'

Bearer of the flame ...

Audience response, the acclaim of reviewers and critics, and, perhaps most importantly, the respect and admiration of fellow musicians of all generations, make it clear that Donny McCaslin stands poised to be one of the flame bearers of jazz in the twenty-first century. A well-equipped, immensely talented musician with seemingly limitless technical expertise, he consistently proves himself to be much more than merely a gifted technician. Frequently, he impresses audiences with his organic improvisations and moves them with his emotionally expressive playing. Quite clearly, he is acutely aware of the danger of technique becoming the message and not the medium. 'When I hear someone play a solo that has a million notes, I know it's amazing but it also has to reach me emotionally. It depends on how the notes are played, in what spirit are they being played. Sometimes I hear people playing a lot of notes simply because they can and not necessarily because the music calls for it at that moment.'

Off-stage he is quietly self-effacing and genuinely modest about his remarkable achievements and he is clearly aware that in jazz there is always something more to be learned. On-stage, his combination of talents has given him striking self-assurance regardless of the company he keeps and to a considerable extent this is a result of his understanding of and respect for the music and musicians that have come before him. Although coming into jazz as recently as the 1980s, Donny is deeply conscious of the importance of the music's roots and of the work of the past masters of jazz.

'My father knows a lot of tunes and they are all from a certain era and being exposed to that an early age really helped to give me some sense of the history. It wasn't so much that he gave me records to listen to but he would just play all the standards that people had played for years and years. Initially, when I was young, I was drawn to stuff that was modern sounding but once I got a little older I could see that there were gaps in my own musicianship, that I was not really delving as far back into the history as early as I should. So I began doing more and more, really listening to Lester Young and Stan Getz and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Sidney Bechet. I feel that it is a necessary foundation for what I am going to do. I have learned a lot by studying the history.

'At one time, I played for a while in a band with a singer doing a Billie Holiday thing and they had a bunch of transcriptions of songs with Billie and Lester Young. This was really a great experience for me to do that. It forced me to play in that style. It wasn't a gig where I could just go and play my modern stuff. It would have been inappropriate, so really playing that way and listening to it was a good experience because it helped me to develop a stronger foundation on which to draw. The history is really important and I try to use it to help create a base so that whatever I have to deal with can come from that solid historic foundation.

The future's past ...

'Also, there is so much to learn from the musicians of the past. When I was thinking about my own sense of time and swing, I decided to really bear down on some of those older records and learn some solos the way those musicians were playing them. I really got into the way that Lester, Stan Getz, Wayne Shorter, and others played. Not just the notes that they were playing but the way that they played them. The vibrato, the time feel, laying back, pushing ahead, whatever, that's when I felt like I had really learned how to feel the time. Lester now, sometimes he plays stuff that's so simple if you look at it from a scholastic viewpoint or if you try to analyse what he's doing. When I went to Berklee, we would have to analyse solos but if you look at it only in a technical way it's misleading because it seems so simple. But when you listen to him play, he does so in a way that transcends the notes. This is because it's not really about the notes he's playing. It's so emotional, it's like he's a singer. The notes he plays are great, of course, just amazing, but when I listen to him it makes me realize that it isn't the notes that you play, it's how you play them. It's what you feel, it's the spirit, it's the emotion.'

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