What's so good about Donny McCaslin?

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Mon May 29 3:57pm

Several years ago, I attended the Detroit Jazz Festival. As part of their always-impressive line-up of free concerts, I caught a performance by the Maria Schneider Orchestra. As a big band leader (and sometimes composer), this was a show not to be missed - and the band sounded fantastic. On one particular tune - I'm having trouble remembering which - Donny McCaslin took a solo. And absolutely blew everyone away in the audience. As far as I can remember, it's the only solo I've ever seen in a big band context which on its own earned a standing ovation.

Donny McCaslin possesses what for me is a perfect balance between exciting playing technically, and extremely musical solos. As jazz students, we are taught to always be creating melodies when we solo. At times, though, technical showiness becomes the centrepiece of a musician's improvisation, to the detriment of melody making. Donny McCaslin can get around the saxophone better than most, but he's always building an interesting melody: there's a beginning, middle and end. For example - take this performance of David Bowie's "Lazarus". What starts simply builds to an incredible climax - and never does Donny resort to just playing lots of notes. Each note seems carefully chosen; he turns to other techniques - sustained notes, extreme registers - to generate the excitement, creating, with his bandmates, an emotional journey (start at 8:00):

(Okay - now that you've watched that one tune, start from the beginning and watch the whole video!)

You'll notice in the concert listing that the show is billed as the Donny McCaslin Group - an accurate indication that while Donny is the leader, the four members of the group work together to create their unique sound. I would suggest their music is more in the "jazz rock" vein, but this is not just jazz with a backbeat; the grooves require specific input from each of the musicians: Jason Lindner manipulates the keyboards to create sounds which compliment each song in a specific way; Tim Lefebvre lays down broken bass lines which simultaneously propel the music forward while keeping things interesting; and Mark Giuliana (who can basically play any groove, anytime) drives things from the drum kit. No one person is solely responsible for the feel of any tune; but without the unique contribution of each musician, the tunes could not come alive as they do. Check out this live performance of "Fast Future", from his 2015 release of the same name. As they move from the melody into the solo section, the musicians, as an ensemble, create impressive energy:

The first musical example above is a tune by David Bowie - and it is Donny's connection to David Bowie for which he has most recently gained acclaim. The Donny McCaslin group (along with guitarist Ben Monder, who you can catch at the Jazz Bistro during the Festival) served as the backing band for David Bowie's final album Backstar - about which Donny said, "I know for all of us in the band working with him was a transformative experience that we'll carry with us the rest of our lives." I would suggest that's fairly high praise: David Bowie could have hired any musician in the world - and he chose Donny. In fact, Donny even had the honour of accepting a Grammy Award on David's behalf:

To me, Donny McCaslin and his musical colleagues represent much of what jazz should be: forward-thinking, collective music-making at the highest level. Oh and also - so groovy that I can't sit still while listening.

Experience the Donny McCaslin Group on Wednesday June 28, 8 pm at the Concert Hall; the Afro-futurism of Shabaka and the Ancestors opens up. Buy tickets now or, for more information go to their concert page.