There’s a good chance that saxophonist Donny McCaslin embodies a generational shift in jazz—but the soft-spoken former Californian is far too modest to say so.
“It’s not something I think of in terms of the larger scope,” he tells the Straight in a telephone conversation from New York City, where he now lives and works. “I kind of leave that for other people to decide, and I just focus on what’s in front of me, or where my imagination is leading me, and I try to realize that. I mean, I’m certainly listening to a lot of contemporary music—Kendrick Lamar and electronica, stuff that is very current—and that is informing what I’m doing. But, for me, it’s this thing of, like, I’m just following my instincts and my imagination.”
If jazz is a genre, McCaslin is expanding his reach by his inclusion of new, rap-and-R&B-inspired textures—and also, increasingly, by his use of electronics. Almost as an aside, he mentions that he’s starting to bring electronic effects on-stage, instead of simply exploiting them in the studio. But if jazz is a methodology, it’s also possible to see him as simply part of the tradition. The music has always been about building new and startling structures out of commonplace pop-music sounds—and about enlarging the performer’s emotional range, too.
What makes McCaslin stand out as a saxophone player is the cry in his horn’s voice. More ecstatic than anguished, it seems to signal an emotional and spiritual intensity, and he allows that this suspicion is justified.
“For me, music does have a spiritual element,” he says. “I think about it like, you know, God loves all humanity, and music can be a reflection of that, trying to channel that light and that love into the world.
“I remember reading a book, when I was young, about John Coltrane,” he continues. “If I’m remembering it correctly, they were asking him what he thought about when he was playing, or something like that, and it was this idea of trying to envelop the room in this feeling of love. And I thought that was really beautiful, as a youngster. I thought that would be really worthwhile to strive for.”
From videos, and on the evidence of McCaslin’s recent LP, Beyond Now, all four members of his band share that love. Pianist and synth manipulator Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummer Mark Giuliana, and multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood—who plays guitar on Beyond Now, sometimes subs for Giuliana, and will handle bass duties on McCaslin’s current tour—epitomize the telepathic side of jazz, with very little discussion of what each has to contribute in order for the music to work.
“I think we share a common musical language and a common aesthetic, and we really all go for it,” McCaslin says happily. “All these folks have amazing skills, and they’re able to move on a dime into a different direction. That’s part of what the magic is about improvised music, when those things are connecting. A lot of what I strive for is living in those moments, and just letting them go where they’re going to go.”
The quartet’s deeply intuitive rapport proved valuable when it briefly became a quintet in 2015. The fifth member? David Bowie. That’s McCaslin’s band you hear backing the late singer on his near-posthumous triumph, Blackstar, and although their collaboration proved regrettably short-lived, it has obviously marked the saxophonist for life.
“What was really remarkable about David is that he just basically came in, and from the first moment just completely participated in that interaction with us,” McCaslin says. “You just felt his presence, his energy, his passion.…It’s fair to say that it inspired all of us, and I think he was feeding off our energy, too. It just felt like we’d been playing basketball, the four of us, and then we were a five-man team. There was no glitch, there was no interruption, there was no adapting: it just felt like this seamless transition, and it was marvellous.”
McCaslin, who’s included at least one Bowie composition in every set he’s played since the singer’s death, avoids speaking explicitly about his friend’s influence, but you can tell it’s there.
“Because of his background, he had a way of looking at different genres of music from a pretty interesting, outside-of-the-box perspective, and he was able to make some really interesting records because of that,” he says. “And also, in general, there was his presence as a human being. From the first moment, it never felt like he was disengaged, talking on his cellphone or texting somebody. None of that: he was present in everything that was going on.”
The same focused intensity pervades both McCaslin and his music, and it’s a beautiful thing.
The Donny McCaslin Group plays the Ironworks on Saturday (June 24), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.