Arts & Entertainment

Q&A with Santa Cruz musician Donny McCaslin on his new album and playing with Bowie

Donny McCaslin, a jazz musician with roots in the Bay Area, is returning for a concert in June. (Photos by Jimmy Fontaine)

Donny McCaslin is an inventive, renowned saxophonist who has collaborated with a long list of musical legends, including the late David Bowie.

The Bay Area-bred jazz musician has released 13 albums on his own and has appeared on dozens of others. His most recent album, a 2018 release called “Blow,” reveals McCaslin’s versatility and features songs that are nothing like the accomplished musician has ever before created. It’s The saxophone-infused tunes feature lyrics — a departure for McCaslin — and the smart, edgy sound has been described as alternative or “art rock.”

McCaslin worked on “Blackstar,” Bowie’s last album, which was released just days before he died in 2016. McCaslin, who was born in Santa Clara and raised in Santa Cruz, credits his experience with Bowie experience for infusing his subsequent work on “Blow” with a newfound sense of freedom and boundless creativity.

Today, McCaslin lives in Brooklyn. But he’s quick to note how much Santa Cruz’s thriving, eclectic music scene influenced his musical growth as a teen.

McCaslin, 52, soon will come home to the South Bay, as he’s set to perform two shows at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall Studio on Saturday, June 8. For tickets, go online at https://live.stanford.edu/. He’s also scheduled to perform on June 29 at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. For more info, visit https://www.montrealjazzfest.com.

Local News Matters recently chatted with McCaslin via email and phone. Below is a Q&A based on those two conversations, in which McCaslin shared his thoughts on, among other things, playing with Bowie and his musical experiences in Santa Cruz that kickstarted his career. (Part of the Q&A has been edited for space and clarity.)

You grew up in Santa Cruz and Aptos. How did those towns affect your growth as a musician?

It was a great environment. When I was growing up, Santa Cruz had a lot of music and art happening. I’d go with my dad on Saturday mornings and he’d play at the Cooper House. This was before the Loma Prieta earthquake (after which the Cooper House was demolished). Before that, the Cooper House had been converted into shops and a bar, with a bandstand next to an outdoor walking mall on Pacific Avenue. My dad would play there for hours on up to six days a week. I sat there and just listened, and I was exposed to the great American songbook: funk, R&B, Latin jazz, you name it.

McCaslin collaborated on David Bowie’s last album, “Blackstar.”

Meanwhile, reggae bands at that time were always coming to Santa Cruz. Musicians like Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Black Uhuru, and many others. And when the Kuumbwa Jazz center opened, it had performances every Monday night with artists like The Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, McCoy Tyner, Phil Woods, Art Blakey, Cedar Walton — a long list of people. I had access to that every Monday night. I started playing at 12. I played in my dad’s band, as well as others. I decided to go to Aptos High School, which had a renowned jazz program led by Don Keller. He was the jazz director and a trumpet player. His good friend Bill Berry, a trumpeter who had played in Duke Ellington’s band, and he gave Don a library of Duke’s music at a time when it was not readily available. So, I was 14 and playing Duke Ellington’s music. Meanwhile, Cabrillo College’s music program in Aptos was headed by Lile Cruse and Ray Brown. They’re two great educators. It was a feeder program — they were drawing from my high school to supplement spots in their big band. At 14 or 15, I auditioned to play for them. At the same time, the Kuumbwa started offering classes, and I met Paul Jackson (who was born and raised in Oakland), a bassist from Herbie Hancock’s band The Headhunters. When I was 16, I joined Paul’s band and started playing with him. I had so many opportunities to play. I was in a great environment to play music constantly.

A lot of musicians came out of Santa Cruz from that time, right?

Yeah, I wasn’t the only one. Kenny Wollesen and I were classmates. Wollesen is an amazing drummer who’s in a New York band called Sexmob. He was in Bill Frisell’s trio for many years. Jeff Ballard is also a great drummer from the Santa Cruz area. He went to a different school than ours, but we hung out with him. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “Outliers” in which he explains the 10,000-hour rule, which says you need 10,000 hours of practice to be successful in any field. All of the elements were in place in Santa Cruz for that dynamic, for us to become great musicians. We had a great educational system, and opportunities to play as much as we wanted in all kinds of music. It was all there for me to tap into it. It was a special thing and a special time. Sure, some of it depends on the individual. But so much of it depends on education, on the band director, on who has the community support.

Why was saxophone your instrument of choice?

It was an honestly an impulsive choice when I was 12. Looking back, the guy who most inspired me to choose saxophone was Wesley Braxton. He a very charismatic player, a hippie who wore tie-dye and played wild solos, and people would dance and yell things. I was drawn to that charisma, it was exciting. It felt like an event sometimes. I was drawn to the personal expression and improvisation the saxophone allows. The music offers emotional expression within context, but the idea is to process all of these ideas through the instrument.

Who were your biggest musical influences?

I could rattle off 15 names. When I was young, it was John Coltrane. He was my hero. I was into Charlie Parker, as well as Duke Ellington. When I started playing Ellington’s music, I really loved the lead sax player, Paul Gonsalves. He’s so expressive and emotional in his playing. But having said that, Coltrane was the one. I read a biography on Coltrane, and I came away with the impression that his level of dedication was unbelievable. His spirituality, his recovery form addiction, along with his incredible playing, he was my driving force. It was really John Coltrane.

How does living in Brooklyn influence you now?

New York is just this behemoth of a metropolis. It’s really different culturally, and the pace of life is much quicker. Everything is concentrated into this space, so it’s a more intense environment. It has sensory input that besieges you. I wanted to be in this environment. It was a draw for me as a young musician. Coming here was overwhelming at first, but once I got used to it, I felt like I thrived in this environment where there’s so much to learn and so many great musicians to learn from. The intensity of the lifestyle was a motive to work hard.

You’ve gone a different, more expansive route than some other musicians. Why?

I’ve always felt like I want to keep moving forward, not doing the same record over and over. David Binney, my good friend and an amazing sax player, has produced a lot of my records. We’ve talked about this a lot. That was always a theme: what are we going to do different? How are we going to keep it moving forward after each album?

McCaslin is set to perform two shows at Stanford University’s Bing Concert Hall Studio on Saturday, June 8.

A real change for me came after making “Blackstar” (David Bowie’s last album) and being on the road a lot for a couple of years. I was looking for the next thing, and the thing that kept calling me was the idea of vocals. “Blackstar” was a blueprint for how to marry these things. I knew I was hearing vocals (as a possibility), and I went with my instinct and went to this unexpected place with a vocal record. Prior to that, for me it had always been instrumentals with sax in the middle. Now, I have vocals in the center and I was unclear about the role of the saxophone, even going into the studio. I was uncomfortable with that, but at the same time I was excited about the music and lyrics and how it was all coming together.

Where I’ve arrived now with the album “Blow” is unexpected. It’s exciting to follow my gut, my musical instinct. It’s been informed by my band, producers, and songwriters. The songwriting has come together with working with guys in my band to help the music develop. I’m so happy with where it has gone. I was looking for something without a GPS, but I followed my inner voice and instinct. It’s exciting to give yourself over to it, even if it takes you somewhere you didn’t expect.

Did working with Bowie influence you?

It did. That experience was transformative for me on a personal and professional level. It was a deeply affirming process, making that record and the artistic result. It affirmed that I can do anything. It’s open. Doing that record and seeing what happened with it, it has really sunk in. It felt like it freed something deep inside of me, helping to fuel where I am right now. That’s the crux of it, that affirmation. It gave me freedom and fearlessness. Bowie inhabited that feeling, the chameleon he was, of not being afraid to make something really different and compelling, to really go toward what you’re hearing without worrying what the general public or the critics will say. I’m not worrying if it’s jazz or not jazz. I’m really letting go and just going for it. It feeds back to my origins in Northern California, when I played five days a week, jamming with my friends and playing song by The Police or playing in a reggae band or in a salsa band or playing in my dad’s band. It’s a pretty broad musical DNA.

Did you have a concept before recording the album “Blow,” or did it evolve organically?

I had a meeting with (album producer) Steve Wall. We talked about it in large brush strokes. The concept did develop as the writing started. It was so open-ended, we had so many different options. I had a much different process than before. I collaborated with more songwriters, which I’d never done before. It all yielded more material. I also connected with Ryan Dahle as a songwriter. We hit it off. I sent him the instrumental version of “Club Kidd” (a song from Blow). He sent me back the chorus; he wrote lyrics and a new vocal melody. It was killing. That was moment of clarity for me. I thought, “Now, I’ve got the map. Now I know what I want this to be.” It all fell into place more quickly after that, but it was a process to get there.