Q&A: Donny McCaslin
One of my favorite tenor sax players is Donny McCaslin. I recall my childhood friend bassist Larry Grenadier telling me about him in the mid 80's. It was around that time that Donny and Larry were both members of the Gary Burton Quintet. Shortly thereafter, Donny joined Steps Ahead taking over the sax chair from the legendary Michael Brecker. He recorded the album Vibes with Steps and from there went on to work with a host of artists ranging from Gil Evans to Danilo Perez to Dave Douglas to Maria Schneider. In fact, Donny was nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for Best Jazz Instrumental Solo" for his performance on Maria Schneider's recording Concert In The Garden. Donny also led a great group called Lan Xing with fellow saxman David Binney, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wolleson.
Recently, Donny released a high powered and passionate electro-funky album of originals titled Perpetual Motion that I have not stopped listening to. He is joined on this recording by a meaty cast of his musical peers including David Binney, Adam Benjamin, Antonio Sanchez, Tim Lefebvre, Uri Caine, and Mark Guiliana. Donny has never sounded better and immediately upon hearing the title track, I sent him these questions to answer.
Tell us about the inspiration behind Perpetual Motion.
I was looking to go in a different direction after the trio recording Recommended Tools and the brass project Declaration and David Binney, my long time musical associate and producer of various recordings of mine, suggested an electric project. It's something we'd discussed before and now felt like the right time to do it. I have played electric based music before as a side person with Steps Ahead in the mid 90's, and with other groups but this is the first time I wrote music specifically for this direction.
In terms of musical influences I'd say they are varied but a fair amount comes from the musical environment I grew up in. Tower of Power was a group I saw live and who's recordings I wore out as a teenager. Energy generation is inspired by a classic TOP song You've got to Funkifize." LZCM is inspired by Led Zeppelin and Christian McBride. Memphis Redux is coming from my love of Donny Hathaway and the Cannonball Adderley record Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." The arrangement of Five Hands Down comes from the way Jack DeJohnette plays on Miles run the Voodoo Down on a live Miles Davis record. Lastly, I'd mention the bassist Paul Jackson; I had the good fortune to play in his band as a teenager and that led to a long appreciation of his playing most especially on the Headhunters records.
In terms of your sax playing, can you tell us who are a few of your main influences and why?
Sonny Rollins is a prime influence on my playing for various reasons but the main ones being; his feel, sense of thematic development, and dedication. He's a warrior and a true hero to me.
Wayne Shorter is also a huge influence on me, again for various reasons but I'll single out his compositional sense as an improviser, his imagination, his fearlessness, and how his music keeps moving forward. He's incredible.
John Coltrane because of his mastery of the instrument and his dedication, fearlessness, evolution. It's hard for me to put into words what a deep musician and inspiration he is.
Can you talk about your performance on the track Claire?
That song was written in the first months of my daughters life and that was a time that was special and very emotional. The tremendous surge of love and joy combined with the exhaustion of being a first time parent was the feeling behind the song. The performance was based on thinking about Claire; how energetic she is, how she likes to explore, and how much joy she brings to my life.