As DONNY McCASLIN will no doubt attest, once you’ve played with David Bowie, your life is never going to be quite the same again. Just twelve months ago the 50-year-old Californian saxophonist and woodwind maestro (who already had eleven albums to his name) was known only to a relatively small but dedicated band of serious jazz heads but that situation changed irrevocably in early 2016 with the release of the late David Bowie’s critically-acclaimed ‘Blackstar,’ which McCaslin featured heavily on. Consequently, the Santa Cruz horn blower found himself in the unremitting glare of the mainstream media spotlight. Of course, they were more interested in his association with the recently-departed ‘Thin White Duke’ but as a trade-off for their attention, the modest and unassuming McCaslin has benefitted in that his own solo career and artistic endeavours have received a welcome jolt. As a result, he has a much larger audience eager to follow his next move. Frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. Or a more talented one.
Accomplished multi-reed man Donny McCaslin has been making albums since 1998 but it was in 2010, when he released ‘Perpetual Motion’ on trumpeter Dave Douglass’s Greenleaf label that he began experimenting by fusing jazz improv with electronica and creating a new style for himself. It was the beginning of a sonic journey that would eventually lead him to join forces with David Bowie in 2015.
Given ‘Blackstar’s’ phenomenal success, expectations for McCaslin’s new long player, ‘Beyond Now,’ are understandably high, especially as it features the same rhythm section from the Bowie record. SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with the American saxophonist while he was on tour as a sideman for pianist Florian Weber in Germany. He talked in depth about his new album, ‘Beyond Now,’ and also shed light on his work with the man who gave the world Ziggy Stardust…
What’s the story behind your new album, ‘Beyond Now’?
I had been planning to do a new record even when I was working with David but I didn’t have time to sit down and write the original songs until the summer of 2015 after we had recorded what turned out to be ‘Blackstar.’ Prior to that I’d spent the fall of 2014 working but also immersing myself in the songs that he had sent over. Then the first three months of the year, although I was working and doing music with my band, I was also deeply involved in the recording process. We’d do a week of recording and then we’d have three weeks off until the next time and he would send me songs during that period. I was really immersed in his music for all that time and when I sat down and finally had some time in the summer to write, I think the influence of that experience came out. It wasn’t the only influence. I was also really deeply into a record by Deadmau5 which was definitely feeding my sense of creativity. I was also listening a lot to this Aphex Twin record, ‘Syro’ and I was also listening to Kendrick Lamar’s record, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly.’ Those the three main sources of inspiration outside of Bowie that I can remember through the process. I felt like that was all informing my writing and there was one point when I was halfway through a song where I paused and thought, this seems familiar, and then what I realised was there were kind of these three elements in the song that were reminiscent of a song of David’s that had been recorded but didn’t make ‘Blackstar,’ but it’s coming out later in October as part of the ‘Lazarus’ cast recording. So those were kind of the things in place and then I think also just having gone through the experience with my band of recording so much, I think it had deepened our musical interaction and relationship. I think that helped me in terms of writing the tunes and hearing those guys. Having their sound really fresh in my memory probably helped and just wanting to have a platform to express our deeper relationship musically.
In addition to your own material and some of the cover versions you’ve just mentioned, you also did two David Bowie’s songs, ‘A Small Plot Of Land’ and ‘Warsawa.’ Why did you go for two very different pieces of music?
With ‘Warsawa,’ what had happened was that David had passed away and about two weeks later we were starting a week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard, which is like the jazz Mecca, so it was a big deal. I’d played there various times before as a sideman but it was my first time there as a leader and my first time with this band, so it was just a really intense time. There were a lot of emotions and we talked in the band about how could we pay tribute to David from the bandstand. (Keyboardist) Jason Lindner suggested trying ‘Warsawa’ and we did it at the sound check and then played it every set of every night that week. It was really cathartic to be able to have that song to try and channel and express all these emotions that were going on. So I was really grateful for it. It’s so beautiful how the melody unfolds and it’s a great song. In the original version there’s this made-up language when he comes with vocals about halfway through the track but we kept it instrumental. It just felt like a really good fit and primarily for me at that point it was emotional and cathartic to have this vehicle to really try to pour everything through so, during that week I said “we have to record this tune.”
It was later on in the process of going through material – when I was having a back and forth with David Binney, who produced my record – that we were just discussing different options in terms of songs of David Bowie’s to consider. I sent him some that I thought and he sent me a list. Included in the list that he sent was ‘A Small Plot of Land,’ from the ‘Outside’ record which at the time I wasn’t familiar with. It was one of those things where I just perused through the tunes and then that one just caught my ear. I felt I could hear us doing something with this tune. It’s a really strong melody and he sings it just wonderfully. There’s so much passion in the original vocal and I felt that I could hear that on the saxophone. There was so much space on the song I felt I could just hear Tim and Mark and Jason doing something with it. I think David Binney heard it that way too. He had mentioned something about it being more of an electro version and more left-avant-garde than David’s original version, so that’s what we set forth with. We played it a few times and I’m so happy with how it turned out. He really features Tim Lefebvre, who plays more of a guitar role on that track as Jason is playing synth bass primarily. Tim is playing this repetitive line to the melody and then he solos. He just plays wonderfully on it and then I left David Binney to do the string stuff you hear on that with synth sounds. It really took it in an electro direction and really helped to realise that electro vision that we had for it.
Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre and Mark Guiliana have been playing together on several of your previous albums. How did you guys get together in the first place?
To trace it all the way back, I was having a conversation with (producer) David Binney. I had just finished ‘Declaration,’ this record of mine, an acoustic record that has a brass quintet, and he said you ought to consider doing an electric record. I gave it some thought and then I agreed and then that eventually became ‘Perpetual Motion.’ He recommended Tim Lefebvre who I knew but primarily from playing sports with actually although we’d played a few gigs. So he recommended Tim and Mark Guiliana. So that’s how I got going. But ‘Perpetual Motion’ isn’t so much an electronica record at all, it’s really just electric and kind of inspired by things that I grew up with in Santa Cruz, California. One of the elements is that I played with Paul Jackson’s band who was in the Head Hunters. He lived in Santa Cruz when I was a teenager and I played in his band for a while so feel like that was there (in the record) along with Tower of Power, which was very popular when I was growing up. They were originally from the Bay Area, again where I’m from, so that element was there also. So they were sources of inspiration but once I started touring with that project, I just realised how much fun I was having and I was already aware of electronica music and had been checking out Square Pusher and people like that and David Binney was sending me things to check out and encouraging me to get deeper into it. Then I was talking to Mark Guiliana, whose musical language is really informed by a lot of the drum and bass things. I checked out what he was listening to and Tim and I invited Jason Lindner to join the group. So it was just talking with guys and seeing what they’re into. I think the overall thing was that I was really drawn to the sonic framework and the space and the ambient textures. I love the intense drum element and there was just something drawing me to it. I was going deeper and deeper into it. We’ve been playing together maybe about six years or so now, and I have so much fun with these guys because the level of interaction and the improvising spirit is always so present when we play. I think I’ve just stuck with this because it just feels like the right thing to do and I’m enjoying it so much.
That comes across and definitely the chemistry you seem to have playing together is readily apparent from the music.
Oh, thanks. I think we were all struck when we finally heard ‘Blackstar’ in its final form and thought, well, that’s us doing what we do in the studio (laughs). I know that Tony Visconti, legendary producer, and David, they did a lot of things after we finished the basic tracking. When you hear it, the depth of detail on that record is amazing. But also one of the wonderful things about it for us was that it sounds like us. We hear the interaction that we have and all that were still in place. I guess a lot of credit’s due to David Bowie because he wanted us to do what we do and he stepped right into that dynamic of interaction and was totally participating in it when we recorded. It was beautiful. He just stepped right in and was pushing us and we were pushing him and there was this great kind of chemistry the whole time. It was wonderful.
What circumstances led you to hook up with him?
Well, I guess I would say that all the stuff that I just described had happened so I’ve now got this band and we playing exploratory electronica improvisational music and then he was collaborating with (orchestral arranger) Maria Schneider. They were collaborating on a piece called ‘Sue (In A Season Of Crime)’ and it was going to be Maria’s big band with David singing. So she told me about it and mentioned that Clarence Pan, her normal drummer, couldn’t make the session and I recommended Mark Guiliana. So we were talking a little bit back and forth and then Maria suggested to David that he do something with me. She played him some of ‘Casting for Gravity’ album and things went from there. Then she brought him down to hear us play at The 55 Bar (in Greenwich Village) in early June of 2014.
How did that feel? Were you aware that he was in the audience?
Yeah, I knew that he was coming. She had told me and I was a little nervous but I didn’t tell the guys in the band. I just tried to lose myself in the music and we were actually preparing to record ‘Fast Future’ so I was trying to sort through all that music and immerse myself in it. At one point I looked up and caught a glimpse of them but I just tried to bury myself in the music and then they were gone at the end of the set. It wasn’t until about a week later that we had the first workshop/rehearsal session for the Maria/David collaboration I mentioned and I met him in person. That’s when we talked and I gave him my email address and things kind of went from there.
What have you learned from David do you think that has influenced your own development as musician?
I think one thing is his fierce commitment to his artistic vision and just how he has continued to grow and change through the years in maybe unconventional ways but really stayed true to his vision and was really about the art. To me he was just really immersed in realising that vision and it was all about the art. That’s really inspiring to see that.
What about Tony Visconti? Did you gain any knowledge or wisdom from him?
Tony was wonderful and it was a pleasure to see their rapport in the studio and how David would go out to do a vocal thing and Tony had everything dialed in right away. He knew just what to do. It was like an almost unspoken thing between them at times. You could see the many years of working together manifest itself. The ease with which they worked with each other and how Tony knew every move that David wanted and also the stories that they told about their history to us, about London and Berlin, it was just great to hear that. It was great also to see Tony making decisions about reverb and this and that and seeing it instantly manifest itself in the control room. He had such a firm grasp of that environment. To see him at work there was great.
I suppose it was a contrast with the normal way that jazz musicians work with the use of overdubs and things like that.
One major difference is that with a typical jazz record you go in, set up and then you record a record or half-a-record during that day or I guess, to show it a little more clearly, you’ll show up in the morning, set up and then record the rest of the day and then the next day you’re usually done. So one major difference was that we had a lot of time. We had a whole day of setting up and getting sounds and then the next day we started working and we did maybe two songs. I don’t want to imply, though, that the time wasn’t really focused because it was and David was fiercely present in every moment when he walked in the studio, which is also inspiring, to see how just focused he was whenever we worked together. We weren’t taking breaks to play pool (laughs). There was none of that, it was all really focused yet not frenetic or anything. But in terms of the difference with a jazz recording, our process was that we would maybe listen to the demo once and then we’d go in and rehearse it once or talk through a form thing and then we would start tracking. We usually got it in the first or maybe the second or third takes. So then we’d all go in and listen and if there were any fixes that needed to happen, we would do bass or drums first but there were hardly ever fixes for those guys. And then David would add some vocals or would change something and then maybe I would go in and add all the woodwinds stuff that I did which would take some time… or maybe Jason would go ahead of me and add some keyboards. So there was time for all that but it still moved along. We would have a tune where we’d get the final take and then we’d have all the woodwinds stuff, and keyboard stuff overdubbed in a matter of hours. It wasn’t days on end. It was pretty focused work. And everybody was totally engaged.
Do you see yourself primarily as a jazz musician or do you find labels like jazz, rock, or pop too restrictive for what you’re doing?
I guess the thing is, I grew up playing with my father’s band and they played all kinds of music.
He was a vibraphonist, wasn’t he?
Yeah, and he played piano. They played a combination of great American songbook tunes, not really bebop per se, and swing tunes, Cal Tjader-esque Latin jazz and then these R&B/funky tunes like ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love.’ So that was a big part of what I grew up with. And then in my high school band, I played Duke Ellington’s music, three to five days a week. Also, being in Santa Cruz I heard a lot of reggae music, because that was one of the major touring spots for the reggae bands. I also played in a salsa band as a teenager, because there’s a large Hispanic population in that area, and was into rock music too. That was the environment that I grew up in. Santa Cruz is a small town but bands would play in San Francisco from Tuesday to Sunday and then they’d come down Monday to Santa Cruz and play probably for less money than they’re making up in the city but it would have been an off night so they come down to Santa Cruz and play. So the time I started playing at age 12 I got to go and hear Elvin Jones, Cedar Walton and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers and Phil Woods, all these people that normally at a town of that size you wouldn’t have a chance to hear probably, except once or twice a year, let’s say. So that was in place and then there was even a great community college jazz band program that I had access to because of the strength of my high school jazz band program. So I was so lucky and fortunate enough to grow up in that kind of musical environment, where it all kind of coexisted. And certainly, yes, I was focusing on jazz and improvising and John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Michael Brecker for sure, but all that other stuff was there and sort of easily coexisted. So I guess, to answer your question, I don’t think so much about it. One way that I describe this project right now is that what we’re doing is sort of an exploration of the intersection of improvisation and electronica music. But the interesting thing is, Mark’s playing an acoustic drum set and as you know, I’m playing an acoustic saxophone, so it’s really Jason and Tim that provide the electronica elements sonically. But then you have Mark who has this amazing language, the drum and bass language and electronic language and then myself, trying to find a new language on the instrument for me that really feels like it encapsulates or can express myself in a way that feels honest within that framework. I think what we’re doing is really exciting. But I guess the amazing thing is that I’m in improvising musician. That’s my muse and how I express myself.
You’re coming to the London Jazz Festival in November. Will you bring your full band with you?
It’s going to be Mark Guiliana on drums, Jason Lindner on keyboards and then the one substitute will be Jonathan Merren on electric bass, because Tim plays in the Tedeschi-Trucks band and they’re on the road for about 10 months out of the year. So he’s not always available to do my tours, but Jonathan is amazing.
Are you going to include anything from ‘Blackstar’ in your set?
Probably not. We’ve only just really done instrumental versions of ‘Lazarus’ here and there. It’s possible we might play it but what we are more like to play is Warsawa’ and we’ve started to play some other Bowie tunes, like ‘Look Back In Anger’ from ‘Lodger’ and ‘Art Decade’ from ‘Low,’ so they’ll probably be some of those in the set for sure.
What are your aspirations beyond this album?
I have a few things in mind but I think the thing that I don’t have right now is time to start working on them because I’m just so immersed right now in presenting ‘Beyond Now’ live and all the details that go with that. There are other things too in the pipeline. I’ve just recorded this Charlie Parker project in New York last week for four days. So I do have ideas but I think I need to wait until the dust settles a little bit, which will probably be in a month or two, and then I think I can get a little more clarity on what comes next. I have a few different ideas that interest me but it’s all about having the time to sit down at the piano and get the ball rolling.