Interview Highlight: Donny McCaslin

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Local saxophonist and bandleader Donny McCaslin enters the KALX spotlight for a phone interview as DJ Jon the Reptilian focuses on his early musical jazz career including his collaboration with the late David Bowie.

Well, we are here joined by Donny McCaslin on KALX. Thanks so much for being with us today.
Thank you, Jon. It’s a pleasure for being on the show.

So I want to talk a little bit about your upbringing, music, and the projects you have been on. I understand you grew up here in the Bay Area, correct?
I did. Yeah, I grew up in Santa Cruz. I lived there until I was 18. Then I went to Boston for Berklee College of Music. I feel really fortunate to grown up in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area during that period. So much great music happening. In Santa Cruz, the Kuumbwa Jazz Center opened in 1976. By the time I was in high school, there were international bands playing in Santa Cruz every Monday night. I didn’t realize how lucky I was. When I was twelve, I started playing sax. I went down and heard Elvin Jones. A couple weeks later it was Sonny Fortune. Then McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton, Billy Higgins, etc. It was such a luxury to hear these guys on a regular basis.

My father had a gig at a place called the Cooper House, [on the] corner of Pacific Ave near the mall. They played anywhere from four to six days a week on this outdoor patio. Folks would walk up and down the mall and would stop to listen to my father’s band. Once I started playing, I was able to sit in the band and play for hours and hours. I was in a great high school music program. Don Keller was my band director. We had access to all these [music] charts via his navy buddy, Bill Barry, a trumpet player for the Ellington’s band. So this was back in an era, Ellington charts were not readily available for high school or college bands where they are today. I was fortunate to have access to that music. Paul Jackson from the Headhunters was living in Santa Cruz at that time. So as a teenager, I played with his band. I played in a salsa band and heard a lot of reggae music. It was a very vibrant culture. A band from San Francisco would come down. It was a great time to grow up in the Bay Area.

What initially drew you to the saxophone?
My father asked me what instrument I wanted to play. I said tenor sax. In hindsight, the guy, Wesley Braxton, that played in my father’s band when I was growing up was a charismatic player. He was a hippie with tie-dye t-shirts and a big beard. I remember looking into the bell of the his saxophone and there was a pool of condensation with his cigarette buds floating in the middle of it. Which is kinda gross, but as a kid it seemed pretty cool. He would just play. He was a wild soul. He would whip the audience into a frenzy sometimes. I think that’s why I chose that instrument because of the charisma he embodied on it when I was a kid.

How long after that did you decide that you wanted to do that professionally?
It wasn’t too long. I mean I kinda jumped all the way in pretty quickly. I started to dream about being a professional musician. I even went to high school at a different school district to have access to this great music program. It was pretty clear to me that’s what I wanted to do.

And then after that did you immediately go to Berklee?
Yeah, I did. After high school, I went straight away as a freshman in college. I had the opportunities to leave college early to go on the road with bands, but I just felt like I wasn’t ready to leave that environment. There was more work to do– learning wise, growing up, and stuff. So I stayed in school for the full four-year term, which was the right choice for me. I was fortunate that half way through my senior year, I joined Gary Burton’s quintet. I started touring with him my last semester so that carried over that I had this gig. I stayed in his band for three to four years.

Throughout your professional career—the East coast, New York, and Boston—have been your home base?
Yeah– so I stayed in Boston after graduating for a year and a half. Touring with Gary as I mentioned. Then I did move down to New York  and I’ve been there ever since. I still come back to the Bay Area to see my family. Of course, I’ll come out for gigs and stuff. I’m married and have a couple of children. Someday, I’d like to move back to the Bay Area, but we’ll see when that happens.

How do you view the contrast of the two music scenes? Both are very vibrant and different.
Yeah, they are. I guess the thing with New York as you can imagine there are more musicians now on every instrument. There’s more volume and intensity day in and day out life. It’s a faster pace and I think that’s reflective in the music. It’s something that helped motivate me to work is that intensity. That’s what I feel is pretty unique about New York. The scene in the Bay Area there’s so much creativity going on, so much imagination.

I imagine things a little more spread out here whereas there [in New York] things are much closer in a geographical radius.
That’s exactly right! That’s true. When I first moved to New York going into Greenwich Village felt like you could go from club to club. You know, just walking around the village so many different places had music. There’s not as much now and of course there are clubs in different parts of the city. There’s more going on in Brooklyn where I live now than 25 years ago.

One of the things you been getting a lot of buzz about is your work with David Bowie. How did that meeting first happen? And what was it that put you on his radar?
I’ve been playing in Maria Schneider’s band for the last twelve or thirteen years. At one point, she played him a record of mine called Casting for Gravity and then she recommended to David that he should consider doing something with me. I think she mentioned that multiple times. Eventually, David and Maria came together to hear my band play at the 55 bar. I didn’t meet him but I saw him the corner of my eye. It was about a week later that we had the first workshop rehearsal set and that’s where I met him for the first time and talked. The next day, he emailed me about recording some music of his with my band. That eventually led to Blackstar.

So your band worked together for awhile before collaborating with Bowie?
Casting for Gravity is the first record we did together. The gig [Bowie and Schneider] came to hear us play at the 55 bar was actually our rehearsal warm-up for a recording for Fast Future we did that summer. We’ve been touring as a unit for four years or something. Bowie reached out to me after we met. We did discuss different musicians, but the core group was my band. We added Ben Monder on guitar. He’s been in my band for many years. We done various recordings together. It was great to have him as part of Blackstar too because I have this long musical history with him. He’s an amazing musician.

Was there a language gap with the two genres and the two disciplines of music?
Not really. I think from my perspective and the guys that I worked with, we all have a pretty broad musical DNA that we draw from. We all have open interests musically and we all played in different styles of music. For example, Tim Lefebvre our bass player is part of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They tour ten months out of the year. So that’s definitely not a jazz gig. Mark Guiliana has done a lot of drums and electronica music. We all come from these diverse backgrounds. It wasn’t a stretch; it was a good fit, great chemistry.

Part of the goal was to create a jazzier element into the songs as well?
Yeah, I think [Bowie] was totally open to all of our input. All of the songs were great. Certainly, my role is improvising a lot; I felt like I had totally free range to play what I was hearing. My idea was to just serve the music and learn the spirit of the song. Listening to him as he was singing, playing often, and interacting with him. He was giving me a lot of freedom artistically to play. It couldn’t been a better environment to work in.

Blackstar may be my favorite Bowie record, it's hard to say because there are so many great ones. I remembered the two music videos that teased the album. The album came out on his birthday and then 48 hours or so he was gone. Do you think he was driven to see the work finished and be put out there?
I knew him for about a year and a half. I can’t speak about his long period career. But, when I knew him there was a lot of creative output going on. It was all the music for Blackstar, but at the same time he was working on the musical Lazarus. After Blackstar was done, he was talking about doing another record with us. I don’t know how far along with the writing process he was. He was engaged with it and thinking about it. He was very much in the moment and working hard on realizing his musical vision. It was really inspiring. Whatever was happening health wise, it never was an issue. We were working in the studio. He was always on-point and brought tremendous energy to the sessions.

You’re touring with the same group of members before, correct?
That’s right. Sometimes, I have subs because people are busy. Nate Wood will be on bass for Tim Lefebvre and subs for Mark on drums. He can play both those instruments wonderful. He’s mixed and mastered a couple of my last records. He’s played some guitar chords on the records. Really, he’s an amazing musician. There are other guys like that. It’s nice to have a good volume of work. I have different folks who can step in.

You have a “newish” album Beyond Now. How has your experiences lead into that work and how do you view that record?
Well, it was a lot of connections with the Blackstar experience. Part of the thing was I wanted a different sonic experience with Beyond Now. I talked to David Binney who produced most my records and again Nate Wood who mastered the record. Mark Marciano engineered and then we talked about setting up the drums differently for the sounds. We did a different micing set-up. All these things to create a bigger drum sound.

When we made Blackstar, time wasn’t an issue. Usually when you go make a jazz record, you go in and start recording as much as you can. Then you come back the next day and you record all day. That’s it usually. It depends on the budget situation. Your usually not allowed a lot of time in the studio. Blackstar thing was so great because we had time and that was never the issue. We could overdub and experiment things I wanted to have.  There was a bit more freedom timewise. I got extra days in the studio for us and getting all the sounds together. When we did Blackstar, Jason Lindner brought nine people into the session. We did a similar thing with Beyond Now. He brought all of his gear. It was a whole day of setting up. In terms of the recording experience, we had a chance to develop the original music on the road with an emotional range. We played a couple of David songs as a tribute at the Village Vanguard. Our level of interaction got deeper going through the Blackstar recording sessions. So I wanted that to be chronicled on Beyond Now and I think it is.

You’ll be playing at the San Francisco Jazz Center with the Blackstar band and Antonio Sanchez, who did the soundtrack to Birdman. Did you guys put this together between the two of you or Jazz Center set this up?
Well, the Jazz Center set up this double bill. For me, this is an exciting double bill because I’m a big fan of Antonio. We played a lot together actually over the years. We recorded together on my projects and projects of his. We toured together, we’re good friends, so I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a wonderful composer. I’m psyched to be sharing a double bill with him and excited for the show. It’s going to be a fun night!

Thanks for spending some time to talk with us. Take care!
Thanks Jon, my pleasure. Good talking to you and looking forward to seeing you!

Transcribed by Stormy Phoenix