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)

“It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before,” McCaslin said, recalling the deluge of media attention following Bowie’s death. “David had stopped doing interviews 10 years or so before he passed. Suddenly, I became somebody who was a gateway to him. A lot of publications wanted to know about it and some wanted salacious details. Navigating that was intense. But through it all, I just tried to stay true to myself and stay true to what I thought would be the best way to honor him.”

On the flipside, McCaslin and his quartet were introduced to a world of new listeners, many of whom came to the group’s shows as a way of processing their grief and seeking one more communion with the Starman.

“To see how his art impacted people’s lives is a very profound experience and very humbling,” McCaslin said. “I felt very honored to be in that time, in that place. And it was helpful for me with processing my own emotions.”

Working with Bowie also served as a reminder to McCaslin that there were really no restrictions on what he could do on his own or with his group. That helped inspire the music he and his quartet recorded on Beyond Now (Motéma), the 2016 album that was released nine months after Blackstar. The record not only featured a pair of Bowie covers, but also versions of material by pop-oriented artists like Mutemath. But even the originals on the album suggested that McCaslin’s focus was sharpening.

As the saxophonist and his band toured to promote the material, lessons from Blackstar only became clearer to everyone involved with those recording sessions.

“The influence is more of a ‘do what you want’ vibe that David imparted on us,” said Lefebvre. “Just be brave and don’t worry about what people think. Just do what you feel.”

Thanks to the Bowie association, the band was in higher demand than usual, and it remained on the road for the better part of 2016.

“Because we were playing the repertoire so much, I started to hear what I felt like the next move was,” McCaslin said. “That was reinforced by playing so much and working on feeding what I thought the next direction was going to be—in terms of finding things to listen to feed the creative unconscious.”

McCaslin filled his smartphone with tunes from other artists, almost none of them from the jazz world: LCD Soundsystem, St. Vincent, Deerhoof, Bon Iver, Beastie Boys, Sufjan Stevens, Nine Inch Nails. An eclectic mix, to be sure, but also populated entirely by artists that, like Bowie, are known for pushing boundaries and fearlessly changing what their music sounded like, often from album to album.

The next step for McCaslin was assembling a team who could help clarify his ideas and make them a reality. The ever-reliable musicians who play in various iterations of McCaslin’s quartet were, naturally, a lock. But the final piece of the puzzle was producer and engineer Steve Wall.

A multi-instrumentalist and co-owner of Gardentone Studios in New York, Wall already was a familiar presence to several musicians in McCaslin’s coterie. Wall co-produced The Buffering Cocoon (Jazzland), the most recent album by Lindner’s band Now Vs. Now, and he helped mix several recordings to which Lefebvre has contributed.

“I don’t know why Donny made the call,” Wall said. “I assume that it was because he was surrounded by a bunch of people that I had already worked with. Initially, he wanted to check out engineering and mixing, and I laid down a vision that was in line with what he was thinking. I sort of took a stand, saying, ‘If you want to make the same record that you made before, you already know how to do that. Let’s not do that.’ That was a good bit of fearlessness to conjure—to go in a new direction—to trust, essentially.”

Crucially, the producer was the bridge between McCaslin’s more jazz-minded approach and the world of singer-songwriter pop. Wall worked closely with Dahle and Taylor, suggesting adjustments to lyrics and vocal melodies. In the case of “The Opener”—which features a speak-singing spiel from Sun Kil Moon leader Mark Kozelek—Wall’s cutting and pasting techniques gave the track a contemporary sensibility.

“My style of mixing is that I’m very much producing as I’m mixing,” Wall said. “I’m not afraid to really get in there and create and hack and slash stuff, trying to give every song its stamp.”

Applying digital post-production to a traditional recording is a growing trend in jazz, and essentially forces artists to relearn the material, so their performances more clearly reflect the recorded versions. And it’s the type of challenge on which McCaslin thrives. Just as he did when he started buying pedals to alter the sound of his saxophone onstage and in the studio, he dove in without hesitation. He had to learn how to perform the Blow. repertoire night after night as if he were fronting a rock band—which meant keeping the sets and performances tight and cohesive, with only minimum room for far-reaching solos and improvisation.

That’s precisely the flavor of the performance McCaslin and his band gave at the Star Theater. The location helped set the tone: The lovingly dingy venue has had a long life in Portland, serving as a silent movie house and burlesque theater in the past, and usually plays host these days to an array of post-punk and hip-hop acts.

McCaslin and his collaborators said they feel completely at home playing such venues. It seems to fuel their desire to get as close to the rock-show experience as possible, without looking like posers or surrounding themselves with pyrotechnics. They thrash and groove with equal authority, and when McCaslin’s not joyfully bumping into his bandmates, he’s playing directly to them, in a manner that feels partly confrontational, partly urging. Indeed, he’s asking everyone to join him in pushing harder and going further than they’d previously thought possible.

“I think a lot more about the show now,” McCaslin said. “Keeping it tight, keeping the flow happening, not wanting it to be too long. Because the audience tires out. It’s a lot of information to process. There’s a lot going on.” DB

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October 2019
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