Blows Them Away : Donny McCaslin plays Kuumbwa this Thursday and the Monterey Jazz Festival next weekend.
Donny McCaslin learned improvisation at his dad's Cooper House jam sessions. Now the sax player returns to Santa Cruz on his own terms.
By Andrew Gilbert
Donny McCaslin is stripping down to basics.
While the Santa Cruz-raised tenor saxophonist has gained the most widespread national exposure in the sumptuous jazz orchestra of Grammy-winning composer/arranger Maria Schneider, he returns to California for a series of gigs with a tough, lean trio featuring ace bassist Hans Glawischnig and expert drummer Ted Poor.
One of the most capaciously inventive tenor players of his generation, McCaslin makes an all-too-rare hometown appearance on Thursday at Kuumbwa, focusing on material from his stellar new album, Recommended Tools, on trumpeter Dave Douglas' label Greenleaf Music. He returns to the area for an improvisation clinic at Kuumbwa on Sept. 17, then appears at the Monterey Jazz Festival on Sept. 20 as a featured soloist with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. Possessing a big, muscular tone and a keen rhythmic sensibility, McCaslin thrives in the minimalist context. Without a chordal instrument providing a harmonic anchor, the bass and drums trio format is particularly challenging for horn players, requiring a constant flow of melodic ideas and a compelling rhythmic drive.
In essence there's nowhere to hide, leaving a player exposed if his energy or concentration flags for a moment. But the creative rewards can be immense. For McCaslin, a well-studied musician versed in the classic tenor sax trio sessions, the shadows of Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Branford Marsalis and Joe Lovano loomed large as he prepared to record Recommended Tools.
"I take all recording sessions seriously, but given the history with this format, thinking about the great albums, I wanted to do it justice," says McCaslin, 42, in phone conversation from his home in Brooklyn.
Produced by David Binney, another top New York tenor player, the album features a selection of nine disparate McCaslin originals exploring an arresting array of grooves (Billy Strayhorn's classic ballad "Isfahan" is the only ringer). The session's cohesive feel flows from the deep connection between the players. McCaslin has performed widely with the Austrian-born bassist Glawischnig, a dazzling player best known for his work with visionary Latin American saxophonists David Sanchez and Miguel Zenon. While the protean drummer Jonathan Blake holds down the drum chair on the recording, he wasn't available for the tour, so McCaslin recruited Ted Poor.
"I need a drummer who can deal with all those different rhythms, but in a way that feels organic," McCaslin says. "I heard Ted playing with guitarist Ben Monder's group and I started hiring him. He's a great drummer, really creative and a really quick study. You can put something in front of him, count it off, and it feels like he's been playing it for 20 years."
You can tell a lot about jazz musicians by the company they keep. While McCaslin is steadily gaining stature as a bandleader, he's still best known as one of the most dependably inspired sidemen in the business. An improviser of the highest order, he serves as a creative spark plug for some of the music's most celebrated and inventive artists. Just in the past year, he's toured with trumpet star Dave Douglas, Mingus Dynasty and the seminal fusion combo Steps Ahead. He played a key role on Schneider's 2005 Grammy-winning recording Concert in the Garden, garnering his own Grammy nomination for his solo on the track "Buleria, Solea y Rumba."
He contributed equally vivid work on 2007's Sky Blue, one of last year's best albums. For McCaslin, Schneider's rich orchestrations provide a vital connection to the jazz's big band tradition and his formative years playing Duke Ellington charts in the Aptos High jazz band. "Donny has become such an important voice for my music," Schneider wrote in a recent email. "His personality is so strong. He's technically amazing, but the most wonderful thing is that there's so much humanity in his playing. His solos are exciting and dazzling, but they have an even rarer quality in that they are also compelling, profound, powerful, moving and often very joyful. I like to give him pieces where he can really build and make a piece lift off the ground because he can create excitement like almost no one else on the planet."
Beyond his improvisational prowess, what's so fascinating about McCaslin is that he's a work in progress. Ask him what he's been up to lately and he quickly starts explaining how his recent gigs have led him to explore new musical directions. Such an impressionable nature might sound like a sign of immaturity, but many of the greatest jazz musicians, from Ellington and Earl Hines to Benny Carter and Miles Davis, continued to absorb new sounds throughout their careers. In McCaslin's case, the diversity of experiences fuels his creative drive. He's been particularly affected by his work with the brilliant Panamanian pianist/composer Danilo Perez's Motherland Project, an innovative ensemble that uses Afro-Caribbean rhythms as the point of departure for a global approach to jazz. (Perez opens a six-night run at Yoshi's with sax legend Wayne Shorter on Sept. 30).
Much like Schneider, Perez has come to depend on McCaslin's "total passion for the moment and the music." In an interview several years ago, Perez described how McCaslin's combination of talent, work ethic and innate musical gift make him a formidable collaborator.
"He's totally studious, beyond any words can describe," Perez says. "He's always thinking about how to be totally true and honest to the music. He's in total control. He doesn't waste any moment or note. Sometimes I'd think about putting these two notes against these two notes and he'd develop a whole concept out of that. It's a great match, because I have crazy ideas and he has an incredible ability to organize instant structures."
McCaslin credits his Santa Cruz upbringing with inculcating a wide-open approach to music. He was weaned on jazz by his father, the veteran jazz pianist and vibes player Don McCaslin, who exposed him to the music directly on a weekly basis as he played with his legendary band, Warmth.
"My parents were divorced when I was a kid and my dad would get me once a week, and we had this ritual," McCaslin says. "He'd pick me up in the morning and drive me down to the Cooper House on the Pacific Garden Mall and I'd help him set up his instruments. The gig was like noon to 5 and I'd sit on this little stool in the middle of the bandstand while they played. Half the music was sort of the Cal Tjader Latin thing and half was straight-ahead standards."
The love of music his father implanted really began to flourish at Aptos High, under the direction of music teacher Don Keller. Through his connection with trumpeter Bill Berry, Keller had access to original charts from the Duke Ellington Orchestra, so McCaslin began to develop his voice on classic pieces like "Harlem Airshaft" and "Cottontail." Further studies with local players like Paul Contos and Brad Hecht helped prepare him for Boston's Berklee College of Music.
He hadn't even graduated from Berklee when he got his first big break. Vibraphone great Gary Burton, always on the lookout for fresh talent, recruited McCaslin for his acoustic post-bop ensemble. Touring and recording with Burton introduced him to the national jazz scene, and prepared him for the inevitable move to New York City. Not long after arriving in 1991, he signed on with Steps Ahead, the only major jazz/rock band that survived fusion's glory days of the '70s.
While he continued to thrive as the consummate sideman, he started releasing increasingly impressive albums under his own name and with the collective quartet Lan Xang, featuring reed master David Binney, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen (a creative conspirator he grew up with in Santa Cruz). Colley was also on hand for McCaslin's creative breakthrough, 2000's Seen From Above (Arabesque), a quartet session with guitarist Ben Monder and powerhouse drummer Jim Black featuring McCaslin's original compositions exploring his interest in rock, funk and, of course, a broad spectrum of jazz.
"I guess I was trying to make a cohesive language out of all these influences," McCaslin says. "The first tune has a little more of a rock feel. There's one tune that's sort of a drum 'n' bass thing, and another that uses a New Orleans second-line groove. I didn't want to make another straight-ahead, standardy, blowing session kind of record."
He brings a similar aesthetic agenda to Recommended Tools, a session that feels both utterly contemporary and timeless in its depth of self-expression. Whether working as a sideman or a bandleader, McCaslin continues to listen without prejudice, soaking up interesting sounds from any and every source.
"I've listened to Soundgarden and Zeppelin and all that, but also to a lot of Messiaen and Bach, as well as loving the history of the music, Fletcher Henderson and Duke and Ben Webster," McCaslin says. "And I'm into rap music too. That open attitude is something that I want to bring to my music, just being really organic and letting all these influences come out. Because I think to grow that's the way the music needs to go."
DONNY MCCASLIN plays Thursday, Sept. 11 at 7pm at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $18 adv/$21 door; 831.427.2227. www.kuumbwajazz.org.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.