Donny McCaslin: Trio Toolbox

Jason Crane By

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I wanted [the new record] to be an honest offering of where I'm at as a musician, and I really wanted to let things happen and play with unbridled enthusiasm and joy.
Donny McCaslinSaxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin won the 2008 Down Beat Rising Star Award, which is both gratifying and hilarious, considering that he's been on the scene for nearly 20 years. In recent years, though, McCaslin has appeared in a number of high-profile settings, including the Maria Schneider Orchestra (for which he received a Grammy nomination) and with trumpeter Dave Douglas' Quintet.

On Recommended Tools (Greenleaf Music, 2008), McCaslin tackles one of the hallmarks of a saxophonist's career—the trio record. McCaslin has composed a daring and exhilarating repertoire for this album, which features bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Johnathan Blake.

All About Jazz: Why did you decide to make a trio record?

Donny McCaslin: I think it was something that had been on my mind. It's a format that I've really enjoyed using over the years. I'd done it sporadically, mostly doing standards. My last two records, Soar (Sunnyside, 2006) and In Pursuit (Sunnyside, 2007), were very arranged and orchestrated, and I felt like it would be really nice to go in a completely different direction and make my statement at this point in my life with a trio record.

Those things were in the air. Then when [trumpeter and Greenleaf Music owner] Dave [Douglas] and I talked about the record, he said, "Hey, I'd like you to do a trio record." So it was an idea that he put out there and that I'd been thinking about at the same time. It all worked out.

AAJ: What is it about the trio? So many saxophonists have gone to the trio. What attracted you, and what were you trying to achieve?

DM: The first thing that comes to mind is that there's so much freedom playing with the trio. There's also so much opportunity to orchestrate and to take on different roles. It's not that I just have to play the melody and solo. I can try to comp for the other guys. There's so much freedom to experiment. I really enjoy having the harmonic freedom to roam as I want to. There's also a direct interaction between myself and the bassist and the drummer.

Most of the music that I wrote, I wrote specifically for the record and for the guys who are on this record. I wanted it to be an honest offering of where I'm at as a musician, and I really wanted to let things happen and play with unbridled enthusiasm and joy. And not think, "I'm going to try to make this song a certain length for airplay." I just wanted to play as deeply as I could.

Donny McCaslin

There's such a tradition with trio records—Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Bill Evans. There are so many great trio records, and a lot of them have had a big influence on my musical upbringing and education. I wanted to reflect my love and respect for those records that I studied and still listen to.

AAJ: You talked about the freedom of the trio setting. What did that bring out in you as a writer or soloist?

DM: I think it challenged me to think about different ways I could comp for the other guys. There are a couple tunes where there's a drum solo happening and Hans and myself will have an ostinato that we're playing together. We have a harmonized line. It challenged me to try to think of the perspective of the whole record. How can I make this record interesting given that there are only three instruments? [I was] still trying to think like an orchestrator and not just have it be head-solo-head, but have a lot of interesting things sonically.

AAJ: Were you surprised by the results?

DM: I was pleasantly surprised with how good it felt when we were recording. It seemed like we had a lot of really good material to choose from. We recorded for two days. We probably could have done the record in one day, but I wanted to have a second day in case there was anything I wanted to revisit.

I was glad we did that because there were a couple tunes—like "Late Night Gospel," for example—where I did a couple takes the first day and they were good, solid takes, but we'd done them at the end of the day when we'd already been playing for five or six hours. I felt when I listened to them back that there were little things missing for me. Having the chance to do it the second day—we captured the feel right away and that was really gratifying.

And the tune "Second Hour Revisited," that's probably the most challenging song on the record, and we did multiple takes. It was interesting listening back—they were all good, but there were one or two that stood out a little bit. I finally made the choice, and that's the one that ended up on the record.

I was surprised that there was so much to choose from with each tune on the various takes. Everything felt really good through the whole recording process. I was very gratified, because we had worked to get to that point. We'd done some rehearsing and done a couple gigs.

AAJ: Your band mates on this record are bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Johnathan Blake. How did this trio get together?

Donny McCaslinDM: It was a process. I've known both Hans and Johnathan for a long time.

One of the first concerts I ever saw was [pianist] McCoy Tyner's group in Santa Cruz. It was 30 years ago or so, and it was the version of the band with [saxophonist] Gary Bartz and John Blake on violin. John Blake is Johnathan's father. Years later I met Johnathan in the Mingus Big Band. He started playing with that group when he was really young, like 18 or 19. We played a little bit then and got to be friends, and we subsequently did tours with various groups over the years. I always loved the way he played and felt like he had a great time feel. He's able to play different genres of music organically with a lot of energy. He's a very interactive player.

That's what I wanted for the trio—guys I could interact with and find those moments of magic. For me, that's something I strive for. Being on stage or in the recording studio and feeling like we're lobbing ideas around. I'm playing something that's a reaction to what Johnathan plays or Hans plays and there's this sense of communication. For me, that's a really beautiful part of being a musician, so I wanted to have guys who I could have that kind of rapport with. I felt like Johnathan really fit into that mold.

Hans does, too. I met him maybe 17 or 18 years ago. He went to Berklee [College of Music in Boston] after I did. I think we initially met in Boston, but we've played many gigs in New York over the years together, and he's done a lot of gigs with different groups of mine. So I've known him for a long time and he has a long history of playing my music. He's a consummate musician and a distinguished composer in his own right. I felt like he was the kind of guy who could deal with the different stylistic influences that come into play in the music that I write. I felt like he could deal with those influences but also really be in the moment and be interactive.

Johnathan and Hans really play well together, and that was key for me, of course. Feeling like the bassist and drummer were going to hook up and provide a strong bed of groove for me to play on.

AAJ: It seems like a record like this requires a lot of trust between the musicians.

DM: That's absolutely accurate. I was alluding to that when I was talking about the communication and the magic being created in those moments. Trust facilitates that, with me feeling like I can relax and listen to what the guys are doing and just respond, react, go back and forth. That definitely takes a good amount of trust.

AAJ: You won the 2008 Down Beat Rising Star poll, which made me chuckle because this is about your 20th year on the scene. Do you feel like a wider audience is coming to appreciate your music because of the exposure you've had?

DM: Yeah, I think so. I've noticed in the last three or four years that it feels like I've gotten more recognition. My CDs are selling more than they were before, and I'm getting more requests for private lessons. I'm reading more press coverage about my gigs. I think part of that is the Grammy nomination that I got a few years ago with Maria Schneider's group. Playing with her group is a very high-visibility gig. And playing with Dave Douglas has been such a great opportunity for me musically, and it's gotten me a lot more exposure.

AAJ: What is Dave Douglas like as a bandleader?

DM: It's interesting. The group has a really large songbook. I think when I joined they had been in existence for maybe five or six years. [Saxophonist] Chris Potter had been in the band. I think there were maybe 40 tunes in the book. Dave's a very prolific composer. In the meantime there are 20 or 30 more tunes since I've been in the group.

Dave doesn't like to repeat himself in terms of set lists. He likes to draw from the full book. It's been great to learn his music and to feel like I get inside his compositional process and learn from that. And then to have to be able to play all these different tunes on any given night. I really enjoy that. As a bandleader, he's constantly trying to shuffle the set list. He also likes to make the band feel uncomfortable sometimes, as far as playing a tune we're not comfortable with and seeing what we'll do with it. That's something he enjoys. As I mentioned before, he's a very prolific composer, so he's often bringing in new material. It's a challenge to keep learning it and adding it to the book.

Donny McCaslin

Dave also really likes to take different fragments of each tune and use them as background figures. He's really serious about the music he writes, and that creates an environment where we're all trying to get into his tunes and extract the most important aspects of those tunes.

AAJ: I was talking with a friend recently about how some performances start off with a lot of difficulties and then turn into some of the best performances. What is it about being off-balance that brings out surprising things?

DM: It's that sometimes you fall into a comfort zone with certain tunes where you have things that you played before—that you're used to playing over a certain chord or a certain progression or feel. You feel like you can rely on it. Then all of a sudden, playing a tune that you don't really know or don't feel like you have a grasp on, it can pull you back to being right in the moment.

Sometimes, when you're forced to play things that you're not as comfortable with, you can play something that you hadn't thought of. Of course, that can happen when you're playing a song that you've played a million times. But I think what [Dave] digs about it is that something new can happen because we're all intently trying to find our way through the chart.

And even though you're concentrating so much, you're also not over-thinking. You're just reacting because you don't know the song that well. Sometimes, in those moments, you're just playing and you don't have time to think, "Did I file my taxes this week?" or "What I am I going to eat after the gig?" None of that comes into play because you're just trying to completely react to what's in front of you.

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