We catch up with the Californian saxophonist, whose notable collaborations have made the him the go-to guy for artists seeking an experimental jazz twist
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has been a major name in contemporary jazz since the 1990s, but it was his contributions to David Bowie's final album Blackstar which brought him, and his bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Guiliana, and keyboardist Jason Lindner, to a wider audience.
Although McCaslin has long been exploring rock and electronic elements in his own music, working with Bowie inspired him to cast off genre restrictions altogether. 'David had a tremendous impact on me both personally and artistically,' says McCaslin. 'He embodied the fearlessness that I've always striven for and his vision, humanity, and total presence in every moment continues to inspire me.'
McCaslin's 2016 album, Beyond Now, featured his takes on Bowie's 'Warszawa' and 'A Small Plot of Land'. Vocalist Jeff Taylor, who appeared on the latter track, has a more prominent role on last year's collection Blow, co-writing several songs with McCaslin. Other guests include Sun Kil Moon's Mark Kozelek, Canadian indie-rocker Ryan Dahle, and Bowie collaborator Gail Ann Dorsey.
'The main thing about Blow that differentiates it from my previous work is that it was really built around song form, lyrical content, and singing,' states McCaslin. 'It was an entirely new process for me to collaborate with the different songwriters on this and it gave me a real appreciation for the art of setting lyrics to music and for the poetry great lyrics bring. The saxophone's role, which had always been clear leading to my prior recordings, didn't really take shape until we were in the studio and though that was uncomfortable it was also exciting.'
As McCaslin explains, moving into the electronic realm was initially suggested by his long-time collaborator, friend and producer David Binney. 'Once I started touring with that music I was fascinated by the different possibilities it offered artistically and I've just gone further in that direction. I'm now in a spot that I would have never imagined ten years ago but I am very much excited about where I am and where the future can go from here.'
The first record McCaslin remembers falling in love with was an LP of marches by John Philip Sousa. 'After that, it was Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, and then AC/DC,' he adds. He was exposed to jazz through his father, a musician who played regularly in their hometown of Santa Cruz, California. Listening to his father's group on the bandstand became a weekly ritual. 'At age 12 I made an impulsive decision to start playing saxophone but I think it was based on the experience of observing his band for years. He had a particularly charismatic saxophone player who would play these wild solos that were filled with squeaks and emotional ideas. I think I was drawn to that expression he personified. Once I started playing I listened to a lot of John Coltrane, Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington and went from there.'
McCaslin studied at the Berklee College of Music alongside Tommy Smith, and he remains a great admirer of the Scottish saxophonist. 'Tommy Smith is a tremendous musician,' McCaslin states. 'I've always been inspired by his commitment to art and his deep sense of emotional expression on the saxophone. His compositions have explored a lot of different territories and I remember him being committed to studying composition from the time we first met as teenagers. Much respect!'
McCaslin's knowledge of Scottish music doesn't end there. On his 2012 album Casting for Gravity he covered Boards of Canada's 'Alpha and Omega', and he talks about being transfixed by the Fife electronic duo's 'rich pallet of sonic expression'. He is also a fan of Frightened Rabbit's music. 'A couple particular tracks were very inspirational and I was, like so many people, deeply saddened by Scott Hutchison's passing.'
Scotland's biggest jazz festival presents concerts over ten days all over the capital, in parks, churches, clubs and concert halls. With a programme featuring all genre styles from early jazz to the avant garde, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival usually manages to secure some world premieres, new bands, and fresh…
With a reputation for high-octane tenor saxophone, McCaslin was famously recruited by David Bowie for his final album “Blackstar”, and played a key role in shaping the sound of the singer’s last album. With his latest album “Blow” he features most of the musicians from that final Bowie album and “steps boldly into hybrid…