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Donny McCaslin: Lightness and Gravity

Jeff Dayton-Johnson By

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Saxophonist Donny McCaslin seems like a young player, given his energy and inventiveness. But he has been playing jazz for three decades. As a child, he was part of his father's jazz ensemble and a member of his high school jazz band. He led his own bands after moving to New York from his native California, but also did considerable sideman duty. In particular, McCaslin broke into the highest ranks of critical acclaim thanks to his turns with bandleader Maria Schneider and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Highlights of McCaslin's tenure in these groups include his solos on "Bulería, Soleá y Rumba," from the Schneider's Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004) and on "Culture Wars," from Douglas' Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf, 2006). And there are many more.

Already a recognized improviser of the first order, a string of strong solo albums drew attention to McCaslin's capabilities as a composer and leader. Recommended Tools (Greenleaf, 2008), featuring a punishing and revealing saxophone-trio format, featured in many critics' best-of-year lists.

McCaslin's Perpetual Motion (Greenleaf, 2011) featured electric instruments for the first time. But it could little prepare for the profoundly electric Casting For Gravity (Greenleaf, 2012). Here the saxophonist, a diligent student of saxophone colossi Sonny Rollins, Michael Brecker and John Coltrane, gives free rein to his passion for electronica music, remixes and dub reggae. The format pushes both the improviser and his audience well outside their comfort zones, but the result provides a fresh platform for McCaslin's restless creativity.

All About Jazz: Your new album is called Casting for Gravity. Tell us about the inspiration for this record.

Donny McCaslin: It's my tenth release as a leader, and I think the inspiration came out of the record I'd done prior to Casting for Gravity, which was called Perpetual Motion. And that was the first time that I'd done a record with electric bass and keyboards. [Keyboardist] Adam Benjamin played on that record; he used Fender Rhodes, but with a lot of effects.

Donny McCaslin—Casting for GravityThat was sort of my first foray into the electric realm. Then I started touring, touring that music, and I, frankly, was just really enjoying it, and got a group of guys together, the guys who played on Casting for Gravity, and I just felt like there was a real rapport there and it inspired me to write new music. And I was thinking about mining the electronica realm for inspiration. So I was listening to a lot of different electronica music, trying to not just make an electric kind of fusion record per se, but to push myself into more modern territory, get myself out of my comfort zone. And those were kind of the main things. I found it really fun to write for the band and then to participate in how the music developed while we were touring, which was a luxury to have, leading up to the recording. In a nutshell, that's what I would say about Casting for Gravity; just trying to do something different, push myself, again, out of my comfort zone and get into some new territory.

AAJ: It's interesting that you mention your "comfort zone." In many ways, Perpetual Motion, while it did feature for the first time electric instruments, could fairly be called an electro-acoustic album. It really grew organically out of your previous releases. Casting for Gravity is really an electric album, it takes a further step.

DM: Exactly. I would totally agree with that and say that that was intentional.

AAJ: The quartet on this record includes bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, both of whom also appeared on Perpetual Motion. Keyboardist Jason Lindner, if I am not mistaken, is a newcomer to your discography. In fact, keyboards are somewhat rare in your discography. Tell us a little about the chemistry of this band, and the role that Jason plays.

DM: I've known Jason for many years and played with him in a variety of settings on the New York scene, played with his big band, and whatnot; His addition to the group, part of why there was so much chemistry there, is because he has a group with Mark Guiliana on drums, called Now vs. Now; a great trio, they have a great connection musically, and I feel like that instantly took the band to another level when he started playing with us. And his sonic sensibility is really developed. He's one of those rare guys who can navigate all these different sounds but do it in a really, really organic way. It feels like he's always of the moment with whatever he's playing. Jason's always willing to take chances, let things ride as far as they're going to go. So he really brings a really strong creative spirit to the band, and his sonic sensibility that he brings really is one of the key elements to the record, I think.

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