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Donny McCaslin: Working and Scheming

Jazzed Magazine • October 2017Spotlight • November 7, 2017

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By Bryan Reesman

For mainstream music listeners, 51 year-old sax maestro and bandleader Donny McCaslin is a new name who they have likely heard through his group’s recorded performances with David Bowie. But to jazz aficionados, the three-time Grammy nominee and Berklee grad is an established artist who has put out an eclectic array of recorded music over the last two decades. His career ultimately spans longer than that.

Being discovered by many new listeners is an enviable position for a veteran artist and, in McCaslin’s case, it is easy to see how his reputation has blossomed. His ability to integrate new musical styles into his milieu and work in different formats has lead him to work with a variety of artists: vibes player Gary Burton, who gave him his first big touring gig; Steps Ahead, in which he replaced personal idol Michael Brecker; the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, which has been a long-running gig; and rock icon David Bowie, whose final album Blackstar his group played on.

When I saw McCaslin and his group perform at Le Gesù on June 30 during the Montreal Jazz Festival, they unleashed an impassioned performance which embraced the volume level of a rock band while gliding through a variety of dynamic levels, from harder bop sections to freeform psychedelia. The foursome expanded upon and improvised various originals and covers (many from his recent album Beyond Now) and also debuted two new original compositions. The quartet – McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Linder, bassist Nate Wood, and drummer Mark Guiliana – had a seemingly telepathic bond as they moved fluidly between sonic worlds. After the show, the towering sax player with the tranquil demeanor came out and graciously spent time speaking with around 40 fans who wanted to say hello, buy CDs, and ask him about his music and playing.

Despite his hectic schedule – one which has included numerous North American and European jazz festivals and concerts in support of Beyond Now – McCaslin still teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music and the Manhattan School Of Music, working in private sessions with a handful of students a few times per semester. Most of his pupils are saxophone players but some double up on other instruments.

In speaking with JAZZed, McCaslin demonstrated why his career keeps reaching new heights. He is simply passionate about music and wants to carve out new paths of expression for himself and his listeners, and that still requires devotion and hard work that he is willing to take on. The journey of learning never ends.

Young people are processing things faster than we are. The question is: do you think they are getting overloaded with all the information that’s out there? I believe that they listen to a wider range of music than we did growing up because it’s more accessible, but I wonder if they’re delving into it as deeply?

It’s hard to make a blanket statement about that. I think the dynamic that you’re describing is the same thing that I think about – having Miles Davis’ complete discography on your hard drive, but are you living and breathing, working, and scheming for a summer? My first big gig was playing with Gary Burton many years ago, and the drummer was Marty Richards, a great drummer from Boston, and I remember him telling this story about when he broke his arm one summer. [With] the arm that wasn’t in the cast he was playing ride cymbal, along with working and scheming for three months. It just reflects the dynamic you’ve described. I don’t know if people are doing that kind of work, but there is so much temptation now to not go that deep into things. Ultimately, I think you have to do that deep work to develop a deep foundation as an artist. It’s something I hope that everybody gets to, but it’s got to be a challenge now because you have access to everything. I feel it when I go into iTunes – I listen to something, then I scroll down [a list]. ‘Oh, what about that?’ What about that? Before I know it, I feel confused as a listener as opposed to living with just one or two tracks, which is where I tend to be much better personally.

As I was listening to some of your earlier material, I hear that you were influenced by a lot of bebop as well as some traditional jazz, and it seems like within the last few years there has been a shift. I could actually hear it when you were playing on Samo Salomon’s Stretching Out, and also on your last couple of studio albums and Bowie’s Blackstar. I recall that Perpetual Motion was your first album that wasn’t entirely acoustic. Was that a turning point for you?

I don’t know. I feel like I have gone through different stages, and certainly Perpetual Motion was a departure because it was the first electric record. [Producer] David Binney suggested that I do that, and I think it did set me down this other path. I think it was also when I started touring and playing with [bassist] Tim Lefebvre, [drummer] Mark Guiliana, and later when [keyboardist] Jason Linder joined the group. There was a certain chemistry there. There were just a lot of things going on. Bin brought me different things to listen to that were more electronica-based, where I had just scratched the surface with Perpetual Motion. When we started touring I started getting really interested in it, and that sonic landscape piqued my curiosity. All of a sudden, I felt like I really heard something there and was exploring and talking to the guys about what their influences were and what they listened to. It just sent me on this other pathway, which I’m still on.

I feel like when I look back on my career I’ve had moments like that where I was on a certain trajectory, encountered something, and then made a total change in direction. To set one example, early on when I really got involved in playing with and studying folkloric music of the Americas – primarily Afro-Cuban music but also playing Argentinian music and Afro-Peruvian music – part of that was playing in Danilo Perez’s band for a couple of years. But it also really affected the music – I made a couple of records like Soar and then In Pursuit that really personified my take on that. That was just an example where I was on that pathway for a while, and then it felt like time for something else. The last one you described turned into electric music, and it’s just continued to evolve for the last few years.

A few things have changed, and one is that I have had many more opportunities to play as a leader over the last six years and the last two years especially, as you can imagine. I’ve had so much more stage time with my own group, and I think that’s made a big difference. Also, prior to the electric thing I was going and doing a project, then a different project, then a different project, and this was the first time I kind of stayed in one overall zone with a working band that has a shifting membership but there still is a consistency and aesthetic and everybody’s sharing this common language. This is the first time in my career that I’ve had a sustained working situation. It’s been tremendous.

I assume you have been playing saxophone since you were a kid?

Since I was 12.

So you weren’t born with a reed in your mouth or anything?

[laughs] My father was encouraging and would say, “Do you want some clarinet lessons? Do you want to piano lessons?” I just always said no. When I was 12, I started impulsively with saxophone and just went from there. I was immersed in hearing a lot of music when I was young. In Northern California, I was initially into John Philip Sousa and then The Beach Boys and AC/DC, and then jazz and Chuck Berry, so I was listening to a lot of music and hearing my father’s band. But I didn’t start until age 12.

Did you play other instruments at all, or did you focus on saxophone?

Saxophone is my main thing, but on this record I play some alto flute, flute, and clarinet. The woodwind stuff you hear is all me. I play other instruments in the woodwinds family. I play piano. The term is arranger’s piano, so it’s not like I’m going to get up on a gig and start playing piano because I don’t have much facility. But I do the vast majority of my writing at the piano. I have a little Wurlitzer at home that I love. At a certain point when I was really into folkloric music I was taking percussion lessons, but nothing really serious. It’s really saxophone.

When you’re composing, does it come from jamming or do you have some specific melodic ideas that you bring into the room?

I’m trying to find things that stimulate my unconscious and my sense of creativity. It could be a Kendrick Lamar thing or Aphex Twin or Deadmau5. Or it could be Sonny Rollins or Bill Evans. It could be a lot of different things. I’m trying to find the things that touch upon that moment. When I sit down and write, I basically write a melody, chord changes, and bass line, and then I bring it to the guys in some sense of completion. Then we start playing it – maybe we adjust the form, things get modified as we go along – but what I do bring to the band are essentially complete tunes.

Have you explained to your students how you have grown organically as an artist?

You know what, I don’t know how much I talk about myself in that way. I probably don’t talk much about my overall career scope, but what I focus on, in terms of sharing stuff about myself, is sharing my process and things that work for me that I’ve learned from. And also sharing how I first began to make a living as a musician. I focus on that because I feel like that’s what they’re about to confront, getting out of school and trying to negotiate being a musician in this day and age.

Working with David Bowie certainly was life-changing for you and for your new album, which has a lot of different covers on it, including two of his songs. It’s definitely very different than your other albums. You’ve been doing some of those covers in concert and spoken about working with him. You had one fan who spoke to you after the show at the Montréal Jazz Fest and said that after listening to your work with Bowie that he bought five of his albums. Moving forward, how do you avoid getting out of the tag of being the Bowie guy and get people to discover you?

Most of what I’ve heard from people who came to know me through David, is, “Man, I know you do David and now I’m your fan.” I’m honored and that’s amazing. I interpret that as these people will hopefully go with me wherever I go artistically. I don’t know if I feel any pressure to escape that shadow or the dynamic you described. I’ll continue to do what I do, which is following my instinct musically, write new music, and follow where it’s leading. I think everything else will take care of itself.

Obviously you had quite an output before that.


I also recall you spending some time with a fan after the Montreal show discussing your saxophone harness.

I do remember that. The one I use is called Zappatini. I’m happy to share that kind of information. The harness has made a big difference for me, and saxophone is tough on the body. I’m always happy to talk about that stuff with people.

It makes a big difference when you come out and talk to people. Obviously, you sell a lot of CDs too.

Part of it is surely commercial. I know if I go out there and talk I will sell more CDs, and that’s an important part of the business. But it’s not just the CDs for me. It’s also wanting to connect with fans and show my gratitude for them coming out and checking out the music. My father is a musician, and when I grew up going to his gigs and hanging out with him he was always very personable on the breaks. He would see a lot of regulars who came to hear him. He was a local musician in Santa Cruz, but people would come from San Jose, maybe half an hour or 45 minutes away, and he would remember their names and talk about songs they knew or shared memories. That’s just the example that I saw when I was a kid. My father’s a really beloved person in the community, and it’s sincere on his part. He’s not just doing it to be popular or whatever. He’s not a super extroverted person, but in that context he would go out and talk to people. That’s the example I grew up, and it’s what feels right to me.

Is the way you are teaching different from the way you were taught?

Yeah. I had different teachers, all of whom I learned things from, so there are probably things from all the teachers I worked with that have been a part of my presentation. I also feel like it is very much coming from my life experience working on music and trying to expand my vocabulary and become a better saxophone player and musician. A lot of it is filtered through the lens of how I process information. I try to honor people’s individuality and say, “This is what it does for me, but it might not be that way for you.” Part of the self-discovery as a student is figuring out how you process information, what resonates with you, and what’s your best way of learning.

Discipline is the hardest thing to teach anybody because without discipline you can’t move forward.

That’s also something I can’t force on somebody. I can just talk about it and be real about it. In the end, it’s up to each individual to get into the practice room and work.

Temperament-wise, you’re the exact opposite of the teacher from “Whiplash.”

I never watched that movie, but I don’t like berating people. It’s just not who I am.

You’ve got a style of performing that crosses over many different genres of music. You can go into the sonic stratosphere during a solo but then latch onto a melodic hook and come back to earth. The two newer pieces that you debuted in Montréal were like that. It felt like you guys were really listening to each other.

That’s all true. There’s a ton of listening, and there’s a lot of improvising.

Do you think in order to be a successful musician you need to realize when you should not play?

I do. You can’t over emphasize how important that is. It’s listening and being able to respond and converse with your bandmates. That’s a key element to working as a musician. Bandleaders want to play with people who are going to make them sound good. [laughs]

I think that is something that is not necessarily taught in schools. I recently chatted with Shane Theriot, guitarist for Hall and Oates, and he was saying it is not simply how well you play. You’ve got to be the person that people want to play with. Have you ever been in situations that made you uncomfortable or the chemistry wasn’t there? And how did you navigate that for yourself?

That’s hard to answer in a way because it’s meant different things at different stages of my development, different stages of my career and my maturity as a musician. I’ve been fortunate enough that I can’t recall a situation like that recently, but I’ve certainly been in plenty of situations like that in my life. Gary Burton used to talk about this with the rhythm section. If the band doesn’t feel like it’s coalescing, then try to play really simply and play things that the band can latch onto, which goes against human nature which is to overcompensate and overplay. It is something I certainly did many times in those situations where I wasn’t feeling comfortable. In a perfect world, I would be even more relaxed and try to play in a really clear way that would help bring everyone together.

How has your experience with working with Maria Schneider helped in your evolution?

I’ve been in her band for 15 years. Wow, that’s a big question. I think her artistry speaks for itself. She’s a master orchestrator and great composer, and part of what she does is to create these environments for us to improvise in. She’s very much into interaction and letting the music go where it’s going to go, but she also sets these very specific environments. It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn how to improvise within these contexts that are sometimes very set but also can feel very free. But the freedom for me is in putting the work into having the fundamental parts of the song or the section I’m improvising on embedded so that I can play more freely on top of it and interact with the rhythm section through the challenging parts. Sometimes her music is deceptively challenging. Also, playing in her ensemble and how every single note she writes for everybody all has purpose, all has melodic intent, and has a lot of integrity – just appreciating that and learning from that. She’s just great.

It sounds like by the time you got to work with David you had everything lined up. You had the right experience that led you to being able to work with him in a context where you didn’t completely know what was going to happen. You just dove in headfirst.

Thanks. I did dive in headfirst, and it was an amazing experience.

Looking back at your music, I would think a piece like “Flutter” from your debut album would be a great piece to play your students because there is more than one sax part there, and you play things quietly and quickly. That’s harder to do than just wailing – being in control and yet not being in control.

It’s definitely a process. I don’t know if I learned that early on. It’s something I’ve had to work on and still have to think about.

Is there any one aspect of your playing that you would like to improve?

I would like to improve my ability to improvise harmony more rapidly – to create harmony with my improvising, create new harmony as I’m playing. To feel more adept at that, the way certain piano players or certain guitar players I know are.

Do you think this configuration of your band has allowed you to grow?

Very much so. Just playing in this context and having to come up with language that feels right – it’s pushed me on the horn to come up with different sounds and different ways of approaching improvising that are less jazzy, of course. It’s forcing me to dig deeper and think outside of the box that I was in and come up with new language. That’s always a great thing to have that opportunity.

Based upon what you’re working on now, what do you think your next album will sound like?

Probably the way I would describe it is the track “A Small Plot Of Land,” which is one of David’s songs – that’s a window into what I’m hearing for the next record.

What have been the biggest life lessons that you’ve learned so far on your musical odyssey?

I think the importance of always doing your very best when you’re playing and working, and always bringing everything you have. As a teenager, I remember reading a John Coltrane book about his life. It wasn’t that it was stated the way I just described it, but that was the feeling. In his case, this real obsession and relentless drive to keep growing. It was legendary how much he would practice, so that’s something that I feel has always held true for me. My father would say that if you want to be a jazz musician it’s not like you’re going to make a lot of money, but you do something like this because you really love it. It’s not losing sight of that passion that drew me to music in the first place. What is it that makes you sit in a practice room for all of those hours to figure this out and work on it over and over again? There’s some sort of passion there and an emotional connection to music. I try not to lose sight of that because if I do then it does become this more technical thing that’s not as meaningful. So for me, that connection to the emotional aspect of it is vital for my life as a musician. That and the hard work.

The other thing that comes to mind is something that I saw exemplified in David, which was I felt that he was really present in the moment when we were working together. He was focused, he was taking in all the information, he was relaxed, but he was very present. When he would sing, I didn’t like feel there was any wasted energy. He was always really engaged in what was happening and just utterly present. It’s like a spiritual kind of thing. We’ve heard all our lives how important it is to be present and in the moment because this is all we have and you don’t know what’s going to come next. I’ve tried to live that way. Just working with somebody like that where I felt he was living that [philosophy] was inspiring to me. [It’s about] not being afraid to let the music be what it is and not worrying about categories or what is this person going to say or what is that person going to say. It’s really staying true to what your vision is. This is what I’m hearing, this is what I’m having fun doing. Maybe it’s progressive jazz, maybe it’s electronica – who knows what it’s called, but I like it. It’s good, it feels good, and people like it. And that’s all that matters.

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