Donny McCaslin: ‘Just Be Brave’

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McCaslin’s Blow. features vocalists on a number of tracks, a marked departure from his earlier recordings.

(Photo: Mark Sheldon)

Onstage at the Star Theater in Portland, Oregon, Donny McCaslin and his band are whipping themselves—and the passel of bodies crowded around in front of them—into a frantic frenzy.

The quintet is playing a pulverizing version of “What About The Body,” a charged anthem about political division that opens McCaslin’s new Motéma album, Blow. Keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre hold things as steady as they can, while the other musicians become electrons swirling around the nucleus. Drummer Zach Danziger slams into his kit with heavy-metal ferocity and the guest vocalist, Jeff Taylor, curls around his microphone stand as he howls the lyrics: “And everything is up in the air now/ Like everything could get dissolved in water/ This is where it makes less sense.”

The X-factor is McCaslin. In the past, jazz fans have seen the handsome, lanky saxophonist staying in one spot onstage, occasionally going into a deep knee bend as he gently swings his tenor saxophone in a small arc. Here, on a late summer’s night, he’s using rock-star moves. He thrusts forward as he lays into the song’s downward-spiraling melody, dramatically arching his back while delivering a squealing solo.

As the tune starts crescendoing around its insistent chorus (“Left wing, right wing, what about the body”), McCaslin runs across the stage to share the microphone with Taylor (à la Springsteen and Little Steven). It’s a spontaneous moment; Taylor seems entirely surprised to find McCaslin next to him, and the saxophonist quickly retreats.

Later, as the song’s intensity grows, McCaslin scurries back over and bumps into Taylor as if the two were in a mosh pit. When the song crashes to a close, the band is sweaty and spent.

Those onstage antics—and the accompanying sonic storm of fierce volume and biting lyrics—felt entirely natural to the bandleader. The concert provided a glimpse of the foundation upon which McCaslin developed as a young musician. In his heart of hearts, he just might be a rock ’n’ roller.

“When I was a kid,” he recalled during an interview at his Portland hotel, “John Philip Sousa was the first music I was into. Then it was the Beach Boys, and then it was AC/DC. Then it was jazz.”

More evidence of those rock influences can be heard throughout Blow., McCaslin’s 13th album as a leader. The majority of the 10 songs are examples of pop songcraft, with a verse/chorus/verse structure. Recorded with the members of his longtime band and contributions from other collaborators—including drummer/bassist Nate Wood and guitarist Ben Monder—the songs heave and pitch, bending at odd angles while leaving ample room for McCaslin to soar through it all with electrifying solos and saxophone tones processed by his bank of effects pedals.

“There was this sense of ‘I’m traveling down this pathway, but I really don’t have a map,’” McCaslin said about his new sonic bent. “I’m walking on the edge here, looking over the edge. But the reason I do this is to go for the vision, wholeheartedly. And this vision was surprising and not what I would have anticipated.”

The most significant difference between Blow. and most everything else McCaslin has released under his own name was the decision to feature vocalists on the majority of the tracks. While McCaslin was traversing some uncertain terrain with the decision, it didn’t take long to get his bearings once he was introduced to singer-songwriter/producer Ryan Dahle.

“For me, that was the beginning,” McCaslin said of their meeting. “That was the moment of clarity about where this record was going.”

Dahle is best known in his native Canada for his work as a member of The Age of Electric and Limblifter, bands that trucked in the glammier side of indie rock. Dahle’s former manager, who currently represents McCaslin, suggested the vocalist as a possible contributor to Blow.

“We automatically hit it off,” Dahle said. “We’re both lifers in music in completely different lanes. We started talking about life and ideas and concepts. I was totally charmed by him. He’s a great storyteller and just a warm guy.”

Even with that, Dahle wasn’t entirely convinced it would work. After receiving some rough sketches of song ideas, he spent some time watching live videos of McCaslin, trying to figure out how to work vocals into an already dense jazz-meets-art-rock soundscape. The key, he said, was being patient, hoping for the right moment of inspiration to strike.

“As much as you can play out the concepts and grand themes,” Dahle said, “you have to wait by the side of the road to have the ideas come. I have a studio in Vancouver and I would just show up every day and open these demos to see if there’s anything I could add, to see if there’s something to be inspired by. Slowly, the ideas would start to accumulate.”

Dahle’s vocals and lyrics certainly are the most crucial element to Blow. They reflect the mindset of someone trying to navigate our rather uncertain modern age, imagining a populace trying to build a life again after a catastrophic event (“New Kindness”) or using blank-verse poetry to call up the simple joys of nature and youthful thrills (“Club Kidd”). And throughout, McCaslin and Dahle bend to meet one another in the middle.

“I love his lyrics,” McCaslin said of Dahle. “And his vocal concept, and the way that there’s doubles and layers and a sort of orchestra of voices. When I hear him on a track like ‘Club Kidd,’ it just pierces me right in the heart and connects me to the love I have for music.”

Dahle might have been the element that helped get this project moving forward, but McCaslin freely admits that the seeds for Blow. were planted three years ago when the saxophonist and his group helped the chameleonic rocker David Bowie record his final album, Blackstar (Columbia).

The story of how the Thin White Duke came to bring McCaslin and company into the fold is almost the stuff of legend. Bowie, a longtime jazz fan, had recorded a single with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and was hoping to continue that relationship. But as Schneider was too busy, she suggested he check out McCaslin’s quartet at one of its regular gigs at New York’s 55 Bar. Bowie was so impressed that he invited the band to be a part of the Blackstar sessions.

On a creative level, the recording sessions were hugely satisfying for McCaslin and his quartet: Lindner, Lefebvre and drummer/percussionist Mark Guiliana. Fans and critics glowingly praised the album. But all of it came with the sad addendum that two days after the release of Blackstar, Bowie succumbed to liver cancer.

Nothing much has been the same in McCaslin’s world since then, with both positive and challenging results.

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March 2019
Joe Lovano
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