Donny McCaslin: In a Different Place

Collaborating with David Bowie on his final recording has irrevocably changed Donny McCaslin's life and music

Donny McCaslin
Donny McCaslin (with John Patitucci) at the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival (Photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

Around 10:30 p.m. Pacific time on Saturday, September 22, 2018, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band—vocalist/guitarist Jeff Taylor, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Zach Danziger—walked onstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival. They opened their headlining set with an original song, “What About the Body,” sung by Taylor. McCaslin started the tune on his effects-laden horn, stuttering a chunky riff before the rest of the band joined with a heavy rock beat. And then the saxophonist, who has been a regular on the Monterey stage for the past three-and-a-half decades, did something he has never done before in all those appearances: He sang.

For the song’s chorus, McCaslin stepped up to the second microphone, his right hand covering his ear to aid in the precision of his harmonies. “Left wing, right wing, what about the body?” he hollered with a big smile on his face.

“It’s something I wouldn’t have imagined myself doing, really, but the music called for it and I’m just going all in,” he said after the set. “A lot of the songs are not in the most comfortable range for me, especially as I’m singing harmony parts. It’s in my falsetto.”

McCaslin had sung onstage for the first time only a few months earlier. “I knew it was coming as these songs were taking shape. It wasn’t clear if it would be me or other people in the band, but as the music developed and it got clearer not only on the recording but as I started thinking about the live show, I knew it had to happen. And I was the person who had to be involved in executing it.”

“Going all in” is the perfect way to describe McCaslin’s current musical approach. More than two years past the release of his watershed collaboration with David Bowie on the latter’s final album, Blackstar, the saxophonist is hell-bent on exploring the manifold possibilities within his own sound. On his latest release, Blow, he drapes his horn in rough digital textures and a heady, uncompromising mix of electronica, jazz, and fist-pumping rock.

“I’m in a different place,” McCaslin cheerfully announced at one point during the middle of his Monterey set. “Hang with me.”

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ENTER STARMAN

The next morning, McCaslin, a head taller than everyone around him, was sitting in the shade off of a sand trap abutting the festival hotel and reflecting on the importance of Monterey in his life. He was raised a short, peaceful drive up the Pacific Coast Highway from the Monterey Fairgrounds, in Santa Cruz, Calif. “At 14, my high school won a statewide competition,” he recalled. The prize was a chance to play at the festival. “It was a big deal to me as a kid. Monterey is so immense. Being able to listen to Elvin Jones play, and Dizzy Gillespie. It was magical.”

McCaslin spent every year of high school at the festival, attending lectures and a weeklong intensive immersion camp that featured musicians like Clark Terry, Bob Brookmeyer, Martial Solal, and James Moody. In the late 1980s, he emerged as a mature voice on the horn, confident and knowledgeable about the rich history of jazz saxophone. Some of that poise may have been inherited from his father, Don Sr., who was a fixture of Santa Cruz nightlife throughout his son’s childhood. (Now in his nineties, Don Sr. is still playing around town.) But a lot of it came from his Monterey experiences. Over the following decades, McCaslin would share the festival stage with Maria Schneider, Danilo Pérez, and Kyle Eastwood, among many others.

Then along came Bowie. On a tip from Schneider, the rock superstar went to hear McCaslin’s quartet in New York’s 55 Bar—an intimate space that the saxophonist regularly used to explore the unknown—and subsequently invited them to help bring a new batch of songs to life. In early 2015, they went into the studio; when they weren’t recording, McCaslin continued to work on keeping his career afloat, balancing family, teaching gigs, and the road. “It felt like this parallel reality,” he says of the secret sessions. “It was a musical environment that could not be more conducive to being creative. I’d come out of the studio saying, ‘Man, that felt so great.’ Day after day we were so enthralled about things, but then not being able to talk about it, it was surreal.”

Bowie, grappling with his own mortality, kept his cancer diagnosis secret. The album was released on the second Friday of 2016, and by Sunday night he was gone. Appropriately, McCaslin’s playing on the album is awash in mystery, intrigue, and sadness.

Blackstar was a pivotal moment for me,” he says with some understatement. “It made a lot of things seem possible that hadn’t seemed possible prior to that.” McCaslin had been anointed by Bowie, then left on planet Earth to answer the countless riddles brought up by his parting statement. The band accepted Grammy Awards on Bowie’s behalf. The album was named one of the top five albums of the year by the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and the New York Times. In the midst of a deep exploration of EDM, McCaslin followed up Blackstar with Beyond Now, which featured the same core group, capitalizing on a bright global spotlight now following his every move.

“The inspiring part for me was David’s absolute openness as an artist and fearlessness in taking down barriers,” McCaslin says. “His laser focus on realizing his vision, being around that and having it be such an affirming process personally, was so deeply affirming. It gave me the feeling that yeah, I could do this. Why not do it?”

eff Taylor, Donny McCaslin, and Tim Lefebvre
From left: Jeff Taylor, Donny McCaslin, and Tim Lefebvre during the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival. (Photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)

BASED ON SONGS

Monterey served as a rare two-day respite from the road for McCaslin’s band, in the middle of a West Coast tour that would end in Seattle before a lengthy jaunt through Europe. The week prior, they’d played at the Regent Theater, a 500-seat rock club hugging the borderline of Los Angeles’ skid row. Hometown heroes Kneebody opened the show, as they did for most of the tour. It was an apt billing: two fiercely independent, electronics-heavy future-funk ensembles. The club, a former movie theater with a big stage and balcony that typically hosts hip-hop and rock shows into the wee hours, is a long way from L.A.’s refined jazz rooms. Both bands made full use of the bulging sound system.

“For the vibe of what we are playing, the rock rooms feel good,” McCaslin says. “People are standing. Lighting really comes into play. There isn’t dinner and drinks. I feel like the direction the music is going lends itself to these alternative venues.”

Tim Lefebvre was an integral part of Blackstar and has worked with McCaslin for a decade. He and McCaslin have logged thousands of hours together onstage and in the studio, and the two co-wrote several of the songs on Blow. “I just feel like this is no time for imitation or settling into the pack,” he says. “Working with Bowie confirmed that for me. It’s a time to be brave and embrace weirdness and creativity.”

Lefebvre is a powerful electric bassist with deep roots. Lanky and scraggly, he lays a heavy foundation for McCaslin’s plugged-in sound. “Donny has only changed in his career viability,” he says. “He’s the same musician and dude he’s always been. He’s moved away from jazz production into more pop production. That entails getting deeper into sounds and sonic concepts.”

McCaslin cites an unusual, perhaps unique, set of influences for a saxophone-led “jazz” album. Grizzly Bear, LCD Soundsystem, the Beastie Boys, and Rage Against the Machine all provided pieces to the Blow puzzle. “This new album is based on songs,” he says. “That’s not something I would’ve imagined 10 years ago. That’s been a journey that was unexpected. Part of that was being on the road a lot in the last couple years, feeling like, ‘What’s going to come next?’ And having the time to work it out on the bandstand, find the direction and then find things that feed that direction.”

Several tracks on Blow fully embrace the ethos of anthem rock: thumping, vein-popping music with a message. On a collaboration with Canadian hard-rocker Ryan Dahle and producer Steve Wall called “Great Destroyer,” McCaslin fills the gaps, splaying out his horn over a primitive, metronomic guitar line. When he jumps in with joyous “ga ga ga ga” vocals on the hook, he enters a world of unifying, righteous rock á la Arcade Fire. Multilayered saxophones become a sprightly, almost ska-like horn section. It’s catchy, vibrant, and unexpected. “The Opener” follows, a moody walkabout that hinges on a monologue by alternative folk-rocker Mark Kozelek, a.k.a. Sun Kil Moon. McCaslin credits Blackstar with giving him the confidence to call up such people to work together.

The nearly 10-minute “Break the Bond” features the Blackstar band swirling in a fidgety instrumental angst. Lindner is ethereal while the rest of the rhythm section propels the song. The keyboardist gets his revenge later, as his playing devolves into a staticky swath that threatens to overtake everything. “Exactlyfourminutesofimprovisedmusic” is two seconds longer than billed, a neurotic freakout that separates McCaslin from the influences he cited earlier. Grizzly Bear won’t be including a fast-paced wail of free jazz and pummeling drums anytime soon.

“During the record-making process,” McCaslin acknowledges, “there is anxiety and fear. ‘What are people going to think about this? This is far from where I came from.’ Ultimately I give myself over to where I think the art is leading me. I’m going in full force because that feels like the real thing.”

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

On Sunday, September 23, the closing night of the Monterey Jazz Festival, McCaslin was back in a more straight-ahead bag, playing the title role in a tribute to Michael Brecker, which also featured the late saxophonist’s trumpet-playing brother Randy, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Antonio Sánchez. McCaslin had none of his extra widgets, only his horn. It was all he needed. From the opening notes of Brecker’s “Uptown Ed,” it was clear that he would be presenting the opposite side of the coin he had flashed the night before. He shook, shuddered, parried with Randy, and showed that for all his interest in experimentation, he’s still firmly in command of the fundamentals.

“Sometimes,” McCaslin says, “I ask, ‘Should I make this set more jazzy?’ But then it’s not going to have the same authenticity and impact. When the fear and anxiety would come up, I’d say, ‘No, man. I have to be fearless.’ It’s what I’ve always striven for my whole career. I don’t feel creative alone on a mountain for three months. I feel most creative on the bandstand.”

Top photo: Donny McCaslin (with John Patitucci) at the 2018 Monterey Jazz Festival (photo: Craig Lovell/Monterey Jazz Festival)