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The Seen From Above the Hidden Gardens: An Interview with Donny McCaslin
By Brian L. Knight

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has been pretty busy of late. Within the last year, the Berklee graduate recorded Hidden Gardens (Naxos, 2000) with the band Lan Xang with Dave Binney (saxophone), Scott Colley (bass) and Kenny Wollenson (drums). The album was a great foray into experimental jazz. Although the album’s tunes are great forays in group improvisation, the quartet managed to create a well polished accessible album. Recently McCaslin recorded his remarkable solo album Seen From Above (Arabesque Records, 2000) with guitarist Ben Monder, drummer Jim Black and bassist Scott Colley. In comparison to Hidden Gardens, this album has McCaslin dabbling in swing, fusion, blues and drum & bass. Both albums easily display McCaslin’s skill as both a composer and soloist and show that McCaslin will be a musical force to be reckoned with for years to come. The Vermont Review recently spoke to McCaslin from his home in Brooklyn, New York, where we talked about Lan Xang, life at Berklee and the musicians that have guided McCaslin throughout the years.

VR: When you graduated from Berklee, one of your first gigs was with vibist Gary Burton. Is there anything "different" about playing with a vibist than with other leaders?

DM: Well, I have a lot of experience playing with vibists as my father is a vibist. He also plays piano but when I started playing with him, when I was fifteen or sixteen, I played in a band where he played a lot of vibes. Than I played with Gary and I was actually in Steps Ahead for a few years with Mike Manieri. I guess that my feelings about the vibes is that: one great thing is that the vibes are always in tune, so if your are playing with vibes, it was really good for my sense of pitch. All the notes that they were playing were exactly in tune so I had to match that. Besides that, the idiosyncrasies were as the projects were different. Playing with Gary was a really educational experience because of who Gary was as a musician and being a really good teacher. Playing with Mike Manieri was really good because of his full approach to band leading which was quite different than Gary.

VR: After playing with your father, Gary Burton and Mike Manieri, have you established your own reputation as being a good accompanist to the vibraphones?

DM: (laughter) I am not sure. The vibraphone is a unique instrument in jazz – there are not that many vibraphonists. People will sometimes say to me that it is interesting how my career has gone where I have had these different stints with the vibes, but I am not sure how much of a reputation that I have.

VR: You have lived in New York City for some time now. Do you feel the tradition of improvised music around you?

DM: Yes. Being here has been fantastic for learning about the music. I feel like that there is a certain pace of life in New York that I have never found anywhere else. I think that reflects a certain intensity here. It is inspiring to be part of. Certainly, the history of jazz being here and going to clubs like the Village Vanguard is inspiring because of all the records that I grew up listening to that had been recorded there. And getting a chance to work with people who I looked up to when I was a student and getting a chance to work with those people and interact with them and learn from them.

VR: Did you experience a similar sensation while attending Berklee and learning from its amazing alumni/teachers?

DM: Yes. But more than that, the thing about going to Berklee is that I grew up in Santa Cruz, California, which is a small town of about 40,000 people. I was certainly exposed to a lot of music through my father and just through my teachers there. To go from there to a place like Berklee where there were a lot of really good, talented people at the school at that time – who were my peers! That is, what I think made an huge impression on me. And a few really great teachers that were there that I was able to study with. There were some teachers that I learned so much from and a lot of my learning came from seeing from what my peers were doing, what they were listening to and what they were practicing.

VR: Do you have an alumni session these days?

DM: Gosh, let me think about that. I probably do. It is funny, I am constantly working and playing with people that I went to school with. So much so that I don’t really think about it. I see Berklee people all over the place. It is not only in the jazz area, but if I occasionally do a studio thing, maybe one day the engineer will be somebody that I went to school with. They are out there, everywhere.

VR: I didn’t realize that Berklee had a program for technicians..

DM: Actually, when I was there, that was the biggest major. It was called Music Production and Engineering. There were a lot of people doing that and I think they had a songwriting major too. There were lots people who did that I knew. So when I am hanging out here sometimes, I go into clubs and see friends of mine playing in R&B bands or in singer songwriter projects. Even traveling the world and touring, occasionally people pop up in Europe.

VR: Jumping ahead to the present day. How did Lan Xang come to fruition?

DM: I got involved when Dave Binney was putting together the music for one of his records – I think it is called the Luxury of Guessing. I think this was around 1995. I have met Dave through a mutual friend, Ben Perowsky. Dave started to invite me over to Scott Colley’s house to play some sessions. Scott lived just across the street from Dave. Jeff Hirschfield was playing drums usually. We played through a lot of the music that Dave was preparing for the record. It wasn’t just the four of us. We were the core of the group but there was also piano, guitar, percussion and so on and so forth. The record went really well and after that, we kept on getting together – the four of us in a workshop atmosphere. We got together once, twice even three times a week. We worked on original music and experimented with different things. I was really inspired by Dave’s writing and Scott’s writing so I started writing a lot. We all kept on contributing new music. In about 1997, Scott recorded a record called Portable Universe that we all played on. That is basically how it all got started.

VR: What is the story behind the term Lan Xang?

DM: We were searching for a name for the group. As we were playing music that was not musically definable -  stylistically. We were enjoying the fact that the band was so versatile and we were playing free stuff, funk, swing and experimenting in different forms. We thought that we should try to find a name that it didn’t have a stylistic connotation like the …… "New Jazz Quartet" or something like that. We were trying to find something different. It was actually Scott who was somewhere on a plane reading something about Laos and Lan Xang was the ancient capital of Laos. The symbol for the city was a giant parasol and that was supposed to symbolize freedom. We thought that was kind of cool so we went with it.

VR: Does it help that Dave Binney has his own record company?

DM: Yes. It was really great for our first release. Dave is pretty well respected by jazz critics so there was some attention that the release got. It was partly due to the fact that was Dave was starting a new label. It was good in that sense. I think we got some good press out of it. It was also nice to do something for Naxos because they have such great worldwide distribution. That is an issue with Dave having his own company. The CD is available on the Internet but smaller companies do not have money for advertising. It is harder to get really good distribution.

VR: Was there any progression from one Lan Xang album to the next?

DM: I think so. The biggest thing is that we have a different drummer now. The new drummer is Kenny Wollenson who I actually grew up with. The first gig that I ever played was with him when I was twelve years old. Kenny took over before we played at the Monterey Jazz Festival. I guess that was three years ago in September. Kenny’s playing is different and I was really happy that were able to capture his impact on the group with the new recording. The thing that is different too is that now the music has a little more ambience. Like on the new record, Dave is playing live samples. We overdubbed some percussion stuff. This record is much more of a mood, ambience kind of thing. The first record has a lot of little vignettes on it. The songs vary- there is a straight-ahead swing tune, there is a second line tune and then there is a tango. Whereas the new one has more of an ambience feel. It represents more what we are doing right now when we play live.

VR: When you go into the studio, what is the relationship between composition and improvisation?

DM: There is a little bit of both. A lot of the tunes on the new record we had been playing for a while. They had already evolved just from playing live. In a way, we were pretty well prepared with the songs before we went into the studio. We didn’t need to rehearse much. We needed to get together once or twice to talk about form because we had already played the songs a lot. What happened in the studio was that once we got in there, got set up and started recording, the live sampling was something that we haven’t done a lot of live. We did a lot of it on the recording. That was something that was pretty much improvised while we were in the studio for those two days. Also, some of the songs ended up changing. Once we were in studio, we had the live samples, we had all these percussion stuff set up that we could overdub, we then did end up changing a couple of the concepts of the songs.

VR: When listening to the album, it evokes a sense of adventure. Was it an adventure to make?

DM: Definitely. When the music is that wide open and there so many possibilities of where it can go. I think it is that way when we play always. Even though we have been playing these songs for years now, they can still go in many directions when we are playing live. We do not fall into doing the same thing over and over. We play the same songs but then it can go in many different directions because every one is listening intently and we communicate so well as a group together.

VR: You mentioned playing with Kenny Wollenson when you were 12 years old. What kind of music were you playing?

DM: We were playing jazz. It was funny because we did not know that many songs. We ended up playing "In the Mood" three times.

VR: Time for the name game. I am going to name some names. I would love to hear what you think of these musicians. Briggan Krause?

DM: I do not know his music really well, but I think he is really creative. I feel that he has a really original concept and I like it.

VR: Ornette Coleman?

DM: One of the major innovators of jazz. I love his music. His writing and his musicianship is really great.

VR: John Zorn?

DM: John Zorn is great.

VR: Sonny Rollins?

DM: Sonny Rollins is one of my all time heroes. To me, when I listen to him, I am always moved by his incredible sense of time. His swing feel, to me, is so grooving and so intense. It always reminds me to play with a strong sense of time. Whether you’re playing Afro-Cuban music, swing, funk or whatever it is, the feel is so important. When I listen to him, it reminds me of that old thing I used to hear growing up: "It doesn’t matter what you play, it is how you play it that counts." I worked a lot at both. I worked a lot on my harmonic concepts as well as rhythmic. He has both. He is one of my favorite improvisers.

VR: Kurt Rosenwinkel?

DM: I love Kurt. I was just on the road with him with the Brian Blade Fellowship for a month. It was wonderful. He is one of my favorite guitar players. And writers. I love his record. It is wonderful.

VR: Ken Schaphorst?

DM: Yes. I know Ken very well. I played on most of his records. To me, he is one of the most interesting and original writers of big band music right now.

VR: Going back to school. After attending school and also being quite bit on the road, which would you value more – education or experience?

DM: It is hard to say. I would probably go with experience, yet at the same a time, when I was eighteen years old, I was not ready to move to New York and delve into the jazz scene. So going to Berklee was really beneficial for me because I had time to get used to the different pace of life on the East Coast. I had time to study, live in a dorm and not have to scrape for rent. I had that shelter of school for four years, which was important for me in terms of growing as a person and as a musician. For me, the Berklee experience was essential. If I had to do it over again, I would do the same thing.

VR: Just as much as Lan Xang has a sense of adventure, there is also the presence of spirituality. Do you look anywhere for that guidance?

DM: Personally, I believe in God and I believe in Jesus, so I guess I am a Christian. It is not something that we talk about in the band. I am not sure what Dave, Kenny and Scott’s take on spirituality is, but for me, life and music is a very spiritual thing. I try to reflect love and god in whatever I do.

VR: Do you set any goals for yourself before heading into the studio or out on a stage?

DM: I strive to be free - free to play creatively and not be hindered by expectations or anything else. I always hope that I can be free to express myself musically the way that I think that I have the ability to.

VR: What lies ahead for the future?

DM: For me, I have a solo record coming out in September (Seen From Above, 2000). Solo, not meaning me just playing solo, but it is my group with my music. That is exciting. I am looking forward to it. It is Scott Colley, Jim Black plays drums and Ben Monder plays guitar. For the last couple of years, I have been playing around New York City with those guys. Because they are so busy, it is usually a different combination of guys. Those guys all did a few gigs and then we did the record.

VR: What do you do when you are in the studio or on the road?

DM: I practice saxophone and piano. I spend time at home studying and working. I like to play basketball so I do that when I can. I do yoga, which I am into. I try to take care of myself and live a balanced life.

To find out more about Hidden Gardens at Naxos Records or Seen From Above at Arabesque Records.