Donny McCaslin on working with David Bowie, and playing the saxophone with open ears

I heard Donny McCaslin live for the first time this December, at the taping of his Tiny Desk Concert for NPR Music. After a bouncy, propulsive version of “Shake Loose,” from his most recent LP Beyond Now, the tenor saxophonist and his group launched into an instrumental reimagining of “Lazarus” from David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, which featured McCaslin’s band.

As the group wrapped up the song, I exhaled for what felt like the first time in minutes. My entire body had gone into hibernation to make sure that it could absorb every aural, physical and cerebral detail of this performance.

That’s the kind of music McCaslin makes on a regular basis: captivating and contemplative, it is propulsive but suggests a vast number of potential directions.

Recently, McCaslin has complemented these qualities by exploring his affinity for electronica. On Beyond Now, McCaslin interweaves the enchanting thrust and meditative calm of ambient and house music with the improvisational potential of the jazz form. In fact, look through McCaslin’s work and you’ll find a bandleader constantly searching for new avenues to explore, new ways to update and expand the vernacular of small-group jazz. He’s investigated Caribbean sounds, arena-era jazz fusion, heavy drum-and-bass electronics and atonal, amorphous creative music.

That postmodern mix of influences not only enhances McCaslin’s compositions but also informs his versatility as a soloist. The biting, late-’60s Wayne Shorter sound that forms his base is a constant; but the vocabulary expands as he dips into the genres he engages.

McCaslin was already well established as a force in jazz when the rest of the music world caught up last year, after he and his band backed Bowie on Blackstar. The Grammy-winning album arrived just a week before Bowie’s death. It represented the last of many musical challenges that the Thin White Duke had set up for himself: making an album with a “jazz band.”

The same band plays on Beyond Now — Tim Lefebvre on bass, Mark Guiliana on drums and Jason Lindner on keyboards — and Bowie’s influence infuses much of the disc. Live, you can hear it every time McCaslin lets the notes of “Lazarus” wail from the bell of his horn, as he reinterprets notes and phrases sung in Bowie’s cadence through the expansive, acerbic tone of his own saxophone.

Donny McCaslin and his group play Blues Alley this coming Monday, their first D.C. show since the release of Beyond Now. I spoke with McCaslin last week about his diverse musical upbringing, his love of electronica and how Bowie influenced the direction he sees his music taking.

CapitalBop: So let’s start at the beginning. I know your father was a jazz musician so he helped you in your entrée into the music. What was the rest of your musical upbringing like?

Donny McCaslin: Basically I was very fortunate to go to a high school with an amazing jazz band program. The director, Don Keller, was good friends with [trumpeter] Bill Berry, who had played in Ellington’s band. Bill had given Don copies of all these [Duke] Ellington charts, which we played four to five days a week. This was 1980 to ’84. This was a time when those charts were just not readily available, even for college bands, much less high school bands, much less a small, 1,100-person high school in Northern California. I was really lucky to be a part of that band, to have that director and, you know, be playing Ellington’s music four to five days a week….

And Santa Cruz is a really vibrant place culturally, even though it is a small town. A lot of music. I was playing in a salsa band in high school, I played some reggae music, I was in the big band with the local community college. All of that stuff was really helpful.

CB: When you bring up playing reggae and salsa in those high school bands, a lot of your work as a bandleader has been taking that acoustic jazz basis but giving it just enough of a twist to feel fresh. Like on The Way Through you have that taste of Caribbean music. Has that idea of synthesis — and doing jazz differently — been part of your ethos as a musician?

‘[Bowie's] focus was just very affirming; when we would work he was very relaxed but also completely present and in every moment. I think that’s something that I want to stay with me.’

DM: Yeah! And I realized one thing I left out is that Paul Jackson, the bass player from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, was living in Santa Cruz while I was growing up. I played in his band for like a year too when I was in high school. The way I look at it, all of that stuff was part of my musical DNA. And, as you point out, it wasn’t just straight-ahead stuff I was playing. Even with my father’s band it was Great American Songbook, Cal Tjader-esque Latin jazz, and then R&B funk jams. And then me playing reggae and Caribbean music and Afro-Cuban music. That’s what I grew up with, all of that coexisting.

So as I got further along in my own thing with band leading and making records, I think all of those things started to come out. I’ve had different periods of being really involved with different types of music. Like in the ’90s, there was a time when I was really involved in playing Argentinian folkloric music. And then I was really into Afro-Cuban music, and studying that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, playing with Danilo Perez and getting really into that scene. I think my affinity for it comes from the exposure growing up in Santa Cruz, and it has manifested itself in how my own recordings have played out.

Donny McCaslin. Courtesy Jimmy King

Donny McCaslin. Courtesy Jimmy King

CB: I think when you read interviews and observe the actions of guys like Robert Glasper and Terrace Martin, they seem to be arguing that the diversity of sound in modern jazz is a byproduct of the musician’s musical upbringing, or DNA, or whatever you want to call it.

DM: I would agree with that. I mean, that’s certainly been my story. Fast-forwarding to right now, I’ve been really deep into electronic music. When I was a kid, electronic music — the kind of thing that’s happening now — didn’t really exist, per se. The seeds of that were there and I was listening to the things that were feeding into that genre.

CB: Something that strikes me about your recent electronica-influenced records is how meditative they are. There’s something about the repetitive, almost lulling nature of electronica that makes it great for meditation, to my ears, and I also hear a little of Wayne Shorter’s contemplation in your playing on them. Do you think these are fair observations?

DM: I am really drawn to the — [pauses] what’s the word I’m looking for here? I’m really drawn to thesoundscapes, to the —

CB: The textures?

DM: The texture, the sonic texture in that genre. And, of course, also the rhythmic activity. There’s something in there that draws me. But as you’re saying, the meditative quality: A lot of times things are in one key, one chord — maybe two chords — so there is that meditative thing, and I think I am drawn to that. But I think my take on the stuff is that there is usually more harmonic movement in the songs I write but there’s an area in there that’s interesting to me with a balance of things being like in one key and very meditative but then moving that harmonically. So that’s something I think I’ve been exploring a bit. And then in terms of Wayne Shorter, who’s a huge influence on me — and I think part of it is that he’s such a composer when he’s improvising, and he’s so in the moment as an improviser — I could go on and on about him. But I think those kinds of qualities are something that I try to live up to when I’m playing. Especially in that electronica environment, it’s so important for me to be present and interacting with the other guys and looking for compositional ways to play on these songs.

CB: This may be a bit of a grand statement from me, but when I listen to your electronica records, the phrase I’ve been thinking of is the first, true “jazz for the digital age.” Were you intending to make jazz that reflected the moment — the pace and the sound of the moment?

DM: I give a lot of credit to the overall sonic thing to David Binney, whose produced most of my records, and Jason Lindner, who creates so many of the sounds when we’re recording. It is intentional to go all the way in sonically with this stuff. It’s not like I wanted to add a little bit of synth on this thing to make it an “electric record.” This is just trying to be the most honest reflection of how we feel this music is progressing. I think those guys in a lot of ways really help realize this on the record. After we do the basic tracking, which involves Jason putting three to four different keyboards on each tune, then David takes the files home and adds synths and adds sonic things to make it really feel like how you described.

CB: Is that why, referencing your father playing standards from the Great American Songbook, you’re covering the Chainsmokers and Deadmau5? Like the way Brad Mehldau covers Pink Floyd, Radiohead and the Verve, is this your assertion of new standards in the modern American songbook?

DM:  Yeah! And, for me, the process is kind of on an instinctual level. I really loved that Deadmau5 record and it was really a big inspiration for me for the writing on Beyond Now. And that particular tune [“Coelacanth 1”] spoke to me, and I could hear us doing something with it…. And then Benny sent me the Chainsmokers tune [“New York City”] it was one of those things where I was listening to it and I just loved the song and the sentiment of the lyric — being somebody who’s lived in New York City for a long time — and it just felt like it was a good match for us. I also loved the unfolding of the song.

For me, the selection of those tunes is like we’re scouring around, looking for stuff that is a good fit, and then something clicks and it’s like, “Oh yeah, that will be good!” Because I can hear the adaptation.

CB: We’d be kind of remiss — and I am sorry if this has been all of your press for the last year — to bring up the fact that two of the other covers on Beyond Now are David Bowie covers. You said that Beyond Now was inspired by David, and it strikes me that his musical openness may have been a main point. But to dig down, what were the lessons you took from him and applied to the album?

DM: How do I put this into words? Part of it was just an emotional reaction to everything that had happened. Working on Blackstar with him was a profound experience, and really changed my life; it changed all of our lives. The music on Blackstar, I thought, was really deep and really probing, and he was really — as he’s done throughout his career — fearless in exploring this area we were exploring. So I think all of those things were affecting me when I was thinking about this. And … wanting this record to reflect that deep regard that I have for him.

There’s a certain emotional gravitas that Blackstar has. Going through that experience as a band deepened our communication and our relationships on and off the bandstand. With everything that happened I wanted that to be reflected in the recording: this deeper sense of communication and also getting to that deep level of expression I thought that Blackstar was at.

CB: Both you and David are very versatile musicians and take a very open approach towards music. Did you approach making music differently while working with David? Did working with David change the way you approach making music?

DM: I think it’s had a lasting effect on me. Having an up-close look at his songwriting process, I think that’s had an effect on me. I’ve tried changing up the way I do things based on what I learned being up close with his music. Also his focus was just very affirming; when we would work he was very relaxed but also completely present and in every moment. I think that’s something that I want to stay with me. I had the sense that he never did anything that he didn’t want to do artistically. He had the courage to go for his artistic vision. That’s something I’ve always tried to do. Seeing it happen with somebody like David and at the level he’s at and at the stage of his career he was at, that’s very inspiring. He easily could’ve just been making “greatest hits” records and just doing stuff like that. But instead he’s at 68 and he’s making Blackstar and he’s really pushing boundaries musically. I found that to be incredibly inspiring.

CB: The first time I ever heard you play was at your Tiny Desk Concert, and your version of “Lazarus” quite literally took my breath away. When you’ve been playing that piece — and as you continue to play it — does the meaning evolve for you?

DM: I think ultimately I’m just thinking about David when I play that song, and I’m just trying to not lose sight of that. Every time we’re about to play it I take a couple of deep breaths and just try to put myself — [pauses] to relax and to just think about him. Part of it is the way he sang the melody. As I’m in the role of playing the melody, I think about that: trying to imagine his voice and the way that he phrased and his feel. And then when it develops and I start improvising on it I try to not lose sight of the melody and not lose sight of the overall spirit of the tune and the emotion of the song. I try to keep all of those things in perspective while also trying to just be free to go for what I’m hearing.

CB: That balance of freedom and perspective seems to be one of those things that drove a lot of David’s music. Is that one of those lessons you took from working with him?

DM: Yes, definitely!

CB: With your work almost being Bowie-like in how you shift your sound, are you seeing any musical horizons that you have yet to explore that you want to?

DM: One thing I’m thinking about is writing music that can be adapted for voice. I’m never going to be a lyric writet, but going through this experience with Blackstar and listening to so much of David’s music and the way that the saxophone and the band is integrated with his voice, that is really appealing to me! That’s one thing I’m considering for a direction ahead, developing something along those lines. I don’t know exactly what it looks like: if it would be a singer or a collection of singers. But I think that’s the thing, integrating voice into what we do.

‘I don’t think it’s a singular future for jazz. I think it’s going to keep developing in different ways and we’ll see what takes hold.’

CB: If I can get you to speculate a bit more — and maybe this is too big a question for a half-hour interview — but from your perspective where do you see the mainstream of jazz heading? Is it headed for a kind of Kendrick Lamar-Thundercat singularity or is jazz so complex that its future will always be improvised?

DM: You know, that’s a good question. [pauses] I’m not quite sure. I think in some ways it seems like it’s a hybrid where you do have Thundercat and Kendrick and this very electro-influenced, drum-and-bass-y kind of thing. But then you still have a lot of acoustic music that’s really great. I think it continues to just develop in more of a hybrid way. I think part of that is we live in this age where there’s so much more education available to young musicians…. They have access to so much more, and the opportunity to mix all of these different things together and come up with their own identity and their own mixture of styles. The question is, “What will that be? Is there an audience for it? Are the revenue streams going to still be alive to sustain them and help them develop their music?” I don’t know about all of those; there are definitely some questions about all of those. But I don’t think it’s a singular future for jazz. I think it’s going to keep developing in different ways and we’ll see what takes hold.

I do think that with the electric-type hybrid stuff, there is more potential for a crossover and reaching a broader audience — which is obviously something jazz could use, generally speaking. That’s something that’s out there and the potential is there for that, to greatly expand the people who appreciate improvised music…. I hope that that happens. I’m sure Kendrick’s musical contribution to society has helped that and I’m sure Robert’s [Glasper] has…. I think ultimately people want quality … music, and it’s just, “How do they get exposed to it?” There’s some of that happening with these hybrids and the Bowie record and stuff. I think people will go for it. It’s just getting it to them and connecting to the crossover audience, which isn’t as easy as it sounds. But maybe it doesn’t even sound that easy! [laughs]

CB: With all of this talk of crossover and pushing musical boundaries, with everything you’ve done in your career — working with Maria Schneider and Bowie and reggae and Afro-Cuban music — you still define yourself as a “jazz” musician? Why does “jazz” mean so much in how you define yourself to this day?

DM: You know what? It’s very connected with improvising, which is very connected with expression. And so I think what it means to me is the opportunity for self-expression. And that’s a profound thing for me. It was a very profound thing for me a youngster. It’s why I think I got latched on at an early age, when it meant so much for me. I lived in a very difficult home when I grew up. A lot of bad things happened to me, and a bad environment. Music was my way, improvising was my way to tell my story and just express my feelings when I was young and ill-equipped. I didn’t have the language skills to talk about how I felt or hadn’t had guidance in understanding what was happening to me or how I felt, but music was my way of expressing that. And when you talk about me thinking of myself as a jazz musician, it’s that improvising thing and self-expression that is still so key to me.

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About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson is an Associate Producer for the POTUS Channel on SiriusXM . His work has appeared in the Washington City Paper, on NPR Music, NPR global culture blog Goats & Soda, in On Tap Magazine, The Rotation, and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He previously covered the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist until his graduation. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture.

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