Donny McCaslin: On The Way Through

Franz A. Matzner By

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The church that I go to--First Presbyterian in NY--has basically choir and organ. I have to say, I'm in there sometimes and the music is killing.
Saxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin has already made his presence felt on the scene for some time. Playing with a wide variety of jazz's current talents, he has developed a truly distinct voice, both as player and writer. Dedicated to pushing jazz into new realms, McCaslin's voice has never been more clear and directed than on his latest release for Arabesque, The Way Through.

Recently, it was my privilege to speak with Mr. McCaslin about his latest album as well as his upcoming projects.

All About Jazz: First of all, I want to congratulate you on this album. I think it's really one of the landmark albums of the year.

Donny McCaslin: Thank you very much.

AAJ: This album has several of my favorite musicians on it. I've been a big fan of Scott for some time now, and I recently saw Adam Cruz playing with Danilo. How did you get together with this group?

DM: I would say it came together when I was talking with David Binny who produced it with me. We were talking about what kind of record I wanted to make. The basic premise was to make a trio record, but a different kind of trio record, a trio surrounded with these different colors.

I have been playing with Scott Colley for ten or twelve years. We were in this group called Lan Xang together for awhile. We did a lot of playing with that group, and did some records and touring. I played on one of his records and he played on one of mine, so I have this long relationship with him and I knew he was the right guy for what I was hearing.

As well, at the time I made this recording and was preparing for it, I was in the midst of this two year stint with Danilo Perez and the Mother Land band, and Adam Cruz was playing drums. I'd known Adam for a long time, but this was the first time we'd played together on a consistent basis. He's such a wonderful player. So musical and he's a multi-instrumentalist. He plays marimba, steel plans, percussion, as well as piano and vibes. So I knew he would be great not only for playing drums, but for adding these other colors.

In terms of the woodwinds... I don't even know how that came about. I guess it was that... I felt like the songs needed some harmonic color and that would be the way to go. I've also had a long relationship with Doug Yates. I knew him when we were kids in California... I went to college with. Known him for a long time.

Luciana [Souza] was singing with Danilo at the same time... and we've also had a long musical relationship. I played on her latest record. We've played a lot over the years, so I was really happy to have her be a part of it because she's not your traditional vocalist.

AAJ: No.

DM: Understated. She's so incredible, such a great musician. She was able to step in and nail the stuff right away. Man, her voice is so beautiful.

AAJ: How much do you think the success of the recording process had to do with having toured with them and played with them previously?

DM: I think it helps a good deal, especially in the trust department. I felt like we could just go for it right away. I didn't feel like there was any feeling out process. We all knew each other and could jump right in. I think having that sense of trust based on long term musical relationships... helped it to go so smoothly.

AAJ: I'll ask the same question about the compositional process. Considering the strongly individual voices of these musicians, when you were composing did you have them in mind ahead of time, or did you come to them after you had developed the concepts and basic structures of the songs?

DM: I would say, mostly it was the latter, that I had written the songs not necessarily with particular people in mind, but at the same time with Scott and Dave Binney especially, because I have such a close relationship with them that there sound is often in my head as I'm writing. It's maybe not even a conscious thing where I'm thinking "I could hear Scott playing that" while I'm writing.

Come to think of it, I think it is somewhat a conscious thing. I think it comes in there. I'm writing a bass line and I'm hearing his sound. Just because I know his playing so well, and the same thing with Dave. He's one of my favorite composers and I respect him so much as a musician, that I'll be writing and thinking sometimes—I think he has a hand and an influence in my writing style. Just because I've learned a lot by studying and playing his music.

AAJ: I was particularly interested in the interaction between you and Scott. There did seem to be a similarity in the way the lines were being built.

DM: Yes.

AAJ: I was curious about how much you were composing with him in mind, as you said, and how much his playing influenced the music during recording.

DM: Yeah, well definitely during the recording process, it's huge. I know some moments on that record where there's that conversation going on during the improvising sections where it's my solo but I'm reacting to things that he's playing—he's such a great player, so lyrical, so rhythmically strong, his pitch is so great. It's so clear what he plays—it really gives me a lot of fodder to play with, to react to, and to weave around. So, definitely, it's a big part of it.

AAJ: Going back to your composing, I have a really open ended question. The album is fairly diverse...

DM: Yes.

AAJ:...but to me, what held it together was a certain textural similarity, if that makes any sense.

DM: Yes. That makes absolute sense.

AAJ: I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you approach texture, how you build that textural similarity when you're approaching material that is so diverse.

DM: I think it's thinking about the thread that goes all the way through the song. I knew that the material is diverse, but I knew that if the thread was there, it would work. I would say the thread is my musical language, that even though there's a standard, or a Wayne Shorter tune, the way we're playing on the tunes converts them into one statement.

AAJ: You seem to provide a lot of space for people—and yourself—to really improvise and head in unexpected directions.

DM: Definitely, definitely. My idea as a leader is to try and get musicians on the gig that I want to hear what they are going to do. I want to provide an environment where they can be creative and we can interact and get into conversations, where we can tell our stories in interesting ways. So yeah, I do. It's a combination. There are these tunes that have clear forms and clear solo sections, but then getting into those sections and having it be loose, be malleable, have it be open so we can take it to different places every time.

AAJ: Even though the songs are not based on completely free improvisation, I didn't hear the more standard "I solo. You solo," or trading back and forth. I was really hearing within the improvisation sections a more free, interactive process.

DM: We were trying to think about creating something different, where it's not like I'm just the one improvising, where we're playing together as a group.

AAJ: Does that go back to what you were saying about the trio with color?

DM: Exactly. And I thought... I talked about this with Dave. We were talking about how there are a lot of trio records. When I think of trio records I think of Sonny Rollins at the Village Vanguard. Incredible. More like blowing records. And I thought, "How are we going to make it different?" Dave suggested, let's not burn out on every tune, think of it more like creating a painting.

AAJ: I also want to ask a few questions about your style of playing. I'd like to discuss the concept of minimalism in your work. Could you elaborate a little on that?

DM: When you ask that question, one thing that comes to mind is there are a few moments on the album where it went into a more ambient vibe.

AAJ: Exactly. I actually listen to a lot of ambient and electronica music. When I heard this, I said, "wow, this is really unusual in jazz."

DM: Exactly. I don't know a lot of ambient and electronica music, but I knew that was the vibe I wanted on certain things. Especially using the sampler. We just wanted to create a vibe that was different. I felt like if I was playing, I wanted to be part of the ambience. Not playing over the top of it. In those moments, I wanted to add a color to the color that was already there as opposed to playing a bunch of stuff on top.

AAJ: Everything was very blended.

DM: For me, I think that is something that developed through the group Lan Xang, and touring with Danilo. We talked a lot about improvising together and not having the roles be so clearly defined. Having the trust to let go and try to be part of the overall picture that's happening at the moment. And thinking about taking on different roles as an improviser.

What I mean by that is for me not thinking like a saxophonist. I think this relates to what we're talking about here. In that moment, I'm not really thinking like a saxophonist. I was thinking about the ambient vibe, so I would play a... multiphonic thing that is part of the texture. It comes from the idea of being part of the ensemble.

AAJ: I'm very interested in the idea of textural development, especially in the context of improvised music. There seems to be a sort of branch of jazz heading in that direction. If you're talking about textural development, who are you building on?

DM: For me, its not necessarily jazz musicians. What I was hearing was coming more from material like Radiohead—certain moments—and Bjork. Maybe Squarepusher.

AAJ: You know, this is the second or third time someone has brought up Squarepusher in this context? Squarepusher is such a vital force in the electronica realm. He seems to have worked its way across the border.

DM: Yeah, there are a lot of jazz guys that are really into Squarepusher.

AAJ: I was gonna ask about Bjork as well. She has that textural...

DM: Exactly. I love Bjork. For me, that's where it's coming from. It's me listening to those records and saying, "Whoa! I love this."

AAJ: Let's take a break from the album for a minute and talk about what's happening next for you.

DM: I did the CD release gig in October. Starting this month I've got a gig at the 55 Bar here in NY. I've got a bunch of new music. After doing The Way Through I was inspired in a new direction, to use voice, to incorporate Luciana more into the music. I have a whole new batch of music that incorporates her more and has even more of a folkloric feeling.

AAJ: Those tracks really stood out on The Way Through. I'm not saying they were any better, but they stood out as a new direction.

DM: For me to. I grasped that and ran with it. So I have a whole record ready to go of that. And a whole second album of stuff that is more... jazzy. I mean, it's not straight ahead, but... I'm also going to Bermuda for a few gigs with my group in March, and then Europe.

AAJ: What do you do when you need a break from music?

DM: Well, I'm an avid basketball player. Of course, spending time with my girlfriend. And I have an active church life. So I spend time at church. To tell you the truth, it's not that often that I get bored with music, but more that I get burned out and I need to step away. One thing that helps, I love watching a game, man. Especially the NBA. But I like football too. That helps me to cool out.

AAJ: You said you spend time at the church, has church music had any influence on what you do?

DM: Ahh, yes. I mean, for me, the main cats that move me in church music are Bach, Messiaen, and Handel. The church that I go to—First Presbyterian in NY—has basically choir and organ. I have to say, I'm in there sometimes and the music is killing. I'm totally into it. It's influenced me. I've taken a couple hymns from the Presbyterian hymnal and arranged them, put my thing on them. Someday I'd love to record that.

AAJ: This is about as vague as it can get, but there's a certain sense of spirituality in your album that came through. Maybe in a non-conventional church music way, but it came out to me from the album.

DM: You know how that is. The spirit sort of pervades everything unbeknownst to us. Definitely.

AAJ: I did get that. Especially now when you mention Messiaen.

DM: You know something—and this could be way off—but in Messiaen, especially the Triangular Symphony I hear some ambient material in there.

AAJ: I've been fascinated by Messiaen for a while because of that. When I first heard him, I thought, "Man, this guy was doing things way ahead..."

DM: of his time...

AAJ: Something that elecronica is doing now, but more organic. That's the combination I hear in what you're doing now.

DM: He's one of my heroes.

AAJ: Do you pursue a lot of classical music as well?

DM: I don't really pursue it in terms of performance. I've done a few things over the years here and there, but for me it's more as a listener.

AAJ: It seems the importance of classical music has grown. Do you think it has more of an influence now?

DM: I would say so. Sometimes I feel like there's more—how can I say this?—there's a lot of interesting things to draw from in the classical world whereas in the jazz world of course there are a lot of interesting things to draw on, but sometimes in terms of finding something new you have to turn elsewhere.

AAJ: I always have that vision of jazz. It's always branching into other realms. Other music does it too, but jazz is so good at it.

DM: That's because they are all such great, great musicians.

AAJ: Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you.

DM: Thank you.

AAJ Articles
Donny McCaslin: Feeling the Spirit

AAJ Reviews
The Way Through (Arabesque, 2003) 1 | 2 | 3
Seen From Above (Arabesque, 2000) 1
Exile And Discovery (Naxos Jazz, 1998) 1 | 2

Related Websites
Scott Colley
Luciana Souza
David Binney
Arabesque Recordings

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