Feature: Donny McCaslin
STILL IN PURSUIT
Photo by Dave Stapleton
By Dave Lisik
Published September 9, 2023
A survey polling any and all manner of jazz listener, on the questions of: "What constitutes jazz?" and "What, if any, musical category Donny McCaslin’s recent music falls?" would certainly yield every possible emphatic answer.
Two essential things to recognize are that this music could only have been made by accomplished jazz musicians of the highest caliber, and that Donny and his band are consummate modern jazz musicians, doing exactly what we should hope they’d be doing: using their long-developed abilities and instincts to search for something we haven’t heard before.
Once you’ve spent a reasonable amount of time with Donny’s music, his tenor saxophone sound is as instantly identifiable as any other unique voice in instrumental jazz. Wanting more of his music comes effortlessly but, in between recent album releases by the saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, Donny has maintained a steady flow of new music to his audience. Some of the tracks that make up his new album, I Want More (Edition Records), started coming out more than a year ago. From memory, I couldn’t have been precise about the release dates of the singles, but it’s been apparent that not a lot of grass has grown between the launches of Donny's new material.
This is a fantastic band – among the best in modern music. Donny is quick to give credit and acknowledge a sizable list of frequent, fantastic collaborators but this group of pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim LeFebvre, and Mark Guiliana, the unmistakable drummer, has appeared intact on several of Donny's albums for more than a decade. This is the quartet that shared the stage to accept one of the Grammys for the David Bowie album, Blackstar, an album to which they all were integral. All three of these artists also have strong musical identities and accomplishments in their own respective spaces.
The track, “Body Blow” was released in May of 2022 with a video of the tune released in March of this year. “Landsdown” came out as a single and video in June of 2022, and “Magic Shop” was unveiled close to the end of 2022. A couple of singles that don’t appear on this version of the album, “Creeper” and “Asteria,” emerged earlier this year. When singles are released in this way I’m likely to end up having listened to each track even more times than when an album drops as a unit.
In the introduction of the video for the tune “Body Blow,” McCaslin describes the impetus for this tune (and probably beyond) as being his anger “about the state of the world, the inaction amongst people who are in power.” He mentions that his childhood memories of the toy, “Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots” feels like an appropriate analogy for the “over the top kind of song… it felt like a body blow.”
I was fortunate to have a long conversation with Donny recently. After a short catch up, Donny offers, “I've been really busy lately.” That’s quite the understatement.
Dave: Congratulations on the new album. You’ve got so much going on all the time. I'm trying to follow these summer gigs that you're doing overseas.
Donny: Yeah, there’s a lot going on. How have you been? I know you had that awful accident a couple of years back.
Dave: Yeah, it's coming up on two years. A funny part of this is that it reminds me of you and that sequence of photos from one of Maria Schneider’s album booklets where you’re playfully riding a scooter around the recording studio. My daughter, who was four, was on a much smaller version scooter, going down a path that started going downhill which made her panic. I ran after her and got her on the ground but hit the pavement and broke both arms and my face. That was in August so that big band recording project you played on, that Alex [Sipiaign] helped produce, was delayed until Christmas. I’ve got metal in both arms but pretty close to normal now.
It’s good to still be around and busy.
I'm regularly mentioning that, “Trying to accurately keep track of Donny’s activities would require actual office staff.” And the way parts of this last album came out with several singles and videos, I was going back and piecing together when all these different tracks came out and trying to put a date on them. Thanks to the internet, you see them as soon as they come out and, as a listener, maybe they’re less of an event in your mind than an album launch, but I really like getting something new on a more regular basis.
Maybe it’s a abnormal jazz marketing strategy but I’m really impressed with the product on every level. Whoever's creating the visual presentation of what you're doing – it's been really good for a long time, like the new album or even the covers for Casting for Gravity and Fast Future, which even predates the David Bowie project.
Donny: Thank you, Dave. I appreciate that very much. There's a lot of effort that has gone into the album covers. A lot of thought, a lot of care, and discussion has gone into that art. In my case, it's part of an effort to not have it conform to a standard type of jazz image, but to look for art that reflects the spirit of the music, which is transcendent of a specific genre type. It’s also true for the videos and the imagery that gets put out there on Instagram and all of that. There's a lot of intentionality around that and it's very tied to my aesthetic and to the aesthetic of the music.
Dave: Part of the jazz mindset is that jazz records are kind of inherently cool, right? "We don’t need to worry about what it looks like because it’s all about the music." I’m sure it was always a mixed bag. There are coffee table books of old jazz album art but there were less creative things out there all along. But some current jazz labels put out incredible sounding records with some of the best players alive but the covers are pretty awful. And that's cool because we often have an attitude that we don't care about that. It's just the content...what's in the record. And it's amazing. But at some point you've started making a different choice. Like these new ones with your face right up there and cut in half and in different sizes. “It's just more art” is the first thing that comes to mind seeing those.
Donny: It's really trying to make a statement with the art as well as the music. The music, of course, but just having the whole presentation reflect the attitude and the aesthetic of the music – and to have that not be limited to a formula.
Dave: That's exactly the sort of philosophical road that is connected to your music and is really interesting in your presentation. When I open up a lot of new jazz recordings, it's like you kind of know what you're going to get. The necessity to keep moving the music forward is also expressed in the presentation of your work. And as much as we describe jazz in an ideal sense: “This is something you're going to do for your entire life and you're never going to stop studying, you're never going to stop learning, you're never going to stop trying to expand your vocabulary and find different ways to express yourself and be creative,” a lot of the greatest, most innovative artists didn’t keep that going. So what's interesting about you, if I may, is that you’re doing what we all say we want to be doing.
Donny: Thanks. I appreciate that.
Dave: And maybe it's going to be impossible for you to even analyze or categorize but how much of that is a conscious thought process? That, “Man, I'm just going to keep changing.” How much of it is, “I sit there with the saxophone for hours a day trying to develop my ability just to play greater solos?” It’s not that you’re just a hired gun. Because, in addition to playing the saxophone in that way, as well as anyone doing it, I just see your musical thought process and concept being much wider than just that.
Donny: Thank you. It's like my whole aesthetic musically is about searching. I guess part of this is instinctual. And what I mean by that is if I'm thinking back to…maybe right before Black Star, where I found myself in this aesthetic of exploring the intersection between improvisation and drum and bass, electronica, ambient world. For a long time when I was doing that, I felt like I like the balance of playing that language, acoustic drums, acoustic saxophone – and then bass with a lot of effects and synth with a lot of effects, keyboards with a lot of effects. It felt like a good balance. I felt like I didn't feel the need to treat the saxophone. But then I started to feel like, “Okay, I need to come up with some new language on the saxophone to fit this zone that I'm in.” So I worked on some things that felt instinctively honest for that aesthetic and that carried me for a while. And then I started to feel that's run its course. And now I want to get into electronics and see how treating the saxophone is going to change things. And it ended up being a significant change for me.
But there was a lot of instinct involved, just letting things play out and waiting to see what would happen, waiting for the moment where, “Okay, nowI feel unsatisfied with the language that I have. So I need to add a new element.”
I toured a bunch and I started getting into electronics and then I made a record called Blow, which was really a departure for me. Where the saxophone had always been the lead voice, so to speak, on that record it was really singers who were in the forefront. And the role of the saxophone was somewhat of unclear to me even as I got into the studio to start making that record.
But I was following my instincts is what I'm trying to say, Dave. I've been playing a bunch of gigs after Black Star, as you'd imagine, playing the music of Beyond Now and other things. I had been logging all these hours on stage and was like, “Well, what's going to come next?” I have always had this feeling that I need to keep moving forward and I need to not make the same record over and over.
Earlier in my career, David Binney produced a lot of my records and we're very good friends and he was always encouraging that progress. And then later, with David Bowie, that's something that we talked about and it's something that he always personified in his work.
I started hearing voice as an interesting thing to explore, and there was the blueprint from Blackstar. So one thing led to another and my record Blow, which has vocals at the center of it. But also has the saxophone is “treated” much more thoroughly than it had been on any of my recordings. I had dabbled with [processed saxophone] before, but on Blow, Steve Wall, who produced the record was really great with that aspect of the sound. We just did a bunch of new things with the saxophone.
And then, of coruse, COVID happened and I was writing music and thinking, like all of us were, “Who knows what's going to happen? Will I ever play again? Will I ever tour again?” But I also thought, “If I am ever going to play again, what's the one thing I want to do?” And I was like, “I want to return to playing the saxophone and having that being very prominent.” So I want to do instrumental music.
That's a little bit of a simplification because I did make like a rock record during COVID with a great singer, Ryan Doyle, that hasn't come out yet. That's a vocal project. But for my thing, it was like, I want to do an instrumental record and so that's this record I Want More.
I connected with David Friedman and David mixed it, but I gave him producer credit because he has such a strong imprint and he knows totally how to manipulate the saxophone sound. So I feel like that's a newer chapter for me now. And manipulating the saxophone sound is not only in the studio, but live. Obviously the record is done and it's out. So now when I'm on the stage, I’m wondering what my setup is going to need to be and how am I going to do this with touring as a jazz musician and all the things that go into that. But it's exciting and I'm engaged and I'm into it, and that's what I want.
I want to stay moving forward, being uncomfortable, feeling like there's danger in the music, feeling like I want to be fearless and I want to lay it all out there. And that's the only way to do this for me. Or, at least, the only way to do it well. And that's always what I've striven for.
Dave: That's interesting because you're talking about electronically manipulating the saxophone sound. But that immediately reminds me of a comment one of my saxophone player friends made about you. When I showed him a track that you played on from that quintet album with Alex Sipiagin album almost ten years ago [Steal Bryan’s Laptop], he said, “There were at least five things in that solo that I’ve never heard a saxophone do before.” He said he could imagine how you’d go about trying to do what you just did technically, but he’d never heard some of those sounds before. So I think maybe that’s just part of your thought process, with or without the electronics. What do you think?
Donny: That’s really cool. And I think that’s a reflection of me just trying to find language that resonates, feels personal, feels honest and feels in the moment. And I guess I think back on my life and there were moments where unexpected things resonated with me. And I thought, “Wow, that's really cool. I love that. I wish I could do that on the saxophone somehow.” And then I worked on it.
I remember one point. This is decades ago and I don't say this to throw shade on Gary Burton at all because I have so much respect for him, but I remember him saying,” I hear you going for this intervallic thing, but it's not really working.” Which was his honest assessment of where I was at that moment as, a twenty-one-year-old, or whatever I was. But I stuck with it, Dave, because I really loved it. I love [Thelonious] Monk so much, and I'm so drawn to his playing and his aesthetic, so I just stuck with it. And then later, it just felt like it's part of my musical language. I've always tried to just stay open to those things, wherever it comes from. There are different things over the years that have touched me that way. And then I try to develop it.
But with all of it, I'm really trying to stay in the moment as an improviser so that it doesn't become like I'm playing the same solo over and over. I just try to really stay in the moment.
Dave: I’m almost certain that the first time I was aware of you as a musician was watching a VHS tape of a Steps Ahead concert.
Donny: Oh,wow. Okay.
Dave: I can’t find the particular concert online anywhere but I think Eliane [Elias] was playing piano.
Donny: The one Steps Ahead concert I remember on VHS was one from the Czech Republic. That was a long time ago. I don't even remember who was playing on that besides Mike Manieri.
Dave: I’m not sure. Because [Michael] Brecker is one of my all time favorite musicians. But I'm like, “Okay, who's this guy sitting in for Michael Brecker?" I was like, "Man, that's pretty damn good.” I’m sure that was the first time I heard you.
One of the things I’ve been doing recently when listening to your music, and trying to understand how it’s moving forward, is put Blackstar into context in terms of your creative arc. The fascinating thing for me, presumably others, is the way that you see that influence. It’s easy for people to say, “Oh, Donny took a left turn, stylistically, after the David Bowie collaboration.” But my early perceptions are that it wasn’t as drastic as some people might make it out to be. You were doing things differently before that and those were the things that made you attractive for Blackstar in the first place.
Dave: Question part two, because it seems like these things would be related: One of the things I’ve heard you talk about, which is interesting and I would like to understand better, is the mix of you having a musical influence in your family and a lot of professional musical exposure, but also a quality music education experience in school. Your father was a jazz musician and you played gigs with him. And a lot of people would attribute just that to a likelihood of success when you decided to pursue music. On the other hand, you weren't like Dick Oatts, who had a musical father, but was in the middle of Iowa where not much was going on. You had these influences well balanced. Is it possible to figure out which mattered more, if you can even separate them?
Donny: I guess I'm always, or at least often, looking for things that will stimulate my creative unconscious. I go through periods, of course, where I don't have that, and I'm actively looking. I follow where that leads, without trying to keep judgment out of it, but I just follow it. And that's something that keeps me engaged and excited about being creative. I look at some of my idols, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter, and it seems to me that they kept changing. David Bowie, although I didn't really encounter him until later in life, but some of the greats – or Pablo Picasso just kept evolving through these different periods and these different spheres of influence. I think I've always just felt like it's the way it should be to me. And so I've just always lived that way.
Dave: So it's maybe an inherent personality trait more than something that you learned early on?
Donny: Yeah, I can't think of a lesson that taught me that or anything like that. It was just the way it was. I know one thing for me personally is I feel I try to live in the moment and it's what's going on right now. I don't often reflect on some gig in 1987 or whatever. Sometimes maybe those ideas come up, but I'm always thinking about where I am, what I want to get into, what's coming next, and how do I keep growing?
It's a real determination to keep growing and evolving. The music world is giant and there's so much to learn. I still feel like a neophyte in some ways. There's just so much music I haven't even listened to, man. Music that I wanted to have checked out or absorbed. There's an endless amount to learn and get into.
Dave: One of several reasons I wanted to talk to you about this is because I was thinking, “Donny's new album is coming out. I should do a review of it. It'll make me listen to it fifty times in a weekend and it'll be a good exercise. But I'm listening to it and I’m thinking I can just write what I am hearing is happening. But to do that without getting your thoughts on it seemed to be an empty exercise. And to me that means the music is interesting. There are other albums where I start listening and I sort of know exactly what's happening. It can be great music but the creative process isn’t as much of a mystery. But your music is in an identity... I don’t want to say transition and imply that this most recent album is transitioning to something else. But it’s constantly in transition, and it seems essential to get your take on it to get the full picture.
I like those arranging analysis book where the author interviews the composer and tell him what’s in his charts. “Okay, if you say so.” He’s probably not wrong but the interest for me lies in the actual process the composer used. A few years ago, a friend of mine, Eric [Allen], did a book transcribing “Body and Soul” solos by almost a dozen tenor players. I helped with the analysis and I’m thinking this will be interesting and valuable but I want to hear each one of these great players talk me through these solos. Almost all of them are dead so that’s out. And I can hear people arguing both sides of how much understanding someone else’s process matters. But you almost certainly have more insight into what Coltrane might have been thinking while he's playing a “Body and Soul” solo.
Donny: Well, I don't know about that, but thanks.
Dave: Well, more than the average man on the street, for sure.
Donny: Right, okay. I'll take that.
Dave: My point is in order to understand the creative process, you can take the music on its own merits, but I want to be getting the thought process of the person who did it. Otherwise it's just speculation.
Dave: So I was scouring a few of your different interviews for this story but couldn’t find a detailed version. I remember when we did that recording with Tain and Luis in 2014 and the night before we did that session, I was at 55 Bar and sitting at the bar listening to your group. Dave Binney came and sat in and was playing the tunes as well. But you came over at the break and you were telling that story about Bowie sitting, basically right where I was, with sort of disguise on. I don't know if I've heard that other than you telling it that night.
Donny: Bowie came to 55 Bar with Maria Schneider and my band was playing. It was actually the warm up gig before we recorded Fast Future. So we were playing all of that music and David and Maria came to the first set. I just saw him out of the corner of my eye and I don't know if he had on an actual disguise. He just had a hat, I think, and a jacket.
Dave: The celebrity disguise.
Donny: Yeah. And that was it. They were there for the first set. Then the set ended, people came up, we were talking, and then they were gone. It wasn't until about a week later that I met him for the first time.
Dave: Wasn't it that the bartender had recognized him?
Donny: Yeah, but I also knew he was coming, though. So for me, it wasn't a surprise. Maria had told me that they were going to come down because he'd been checking out Casting for Gravity and was checking us out to see if we would be the right group for Blackstar.
Dave: And so some of the comments made about that project, and I think you’ve referred to them, suggested that your band was recruited for that gig and then sort of co-opted in order to use your sound for that record. But your take on it was sort of the opposite, right? Because there were almost complete tunes being created before you started?
Donny: Yeah, I think he knew about us and had checked to Casting for Gravity. I know he was listening to that. I think he was listening to Jason [Lindner]'s Now Versus Now, Mark [Giuliana]'s Beat Music. So I know he made some references. In one email he sent, he referred to “Alpha and Omega,” which is a track off Casting for Gravity, which is a cover we did of a Boards of Canada song.
He referenced that, so I knew he was checking out our thing. I can't say how it directly influenced the song demos that he sent. But the songs that he sent were great and really had all the elements beautifully in place. So it just felt really seamless. I got the music and I eventually distributed it to the guys and sort of processed it and added the winds.
But I would dispute the notion that he co-opted the band’s sound. We went in with the energy that we play with. It's a lot of interaction and a lot of back and forth. And he just really stepped into that energy as a fifth person, just elevating it all with his conviction. And all of it within the framework of these great songs that he brought. It all felt very organic and cohesive.
Dave: I also remember at Systems II, having a conversation about some specifics of the creative process. At that point, you and Jason, Mark, and Tim, you're no beginners in terms of a solid process, having the music evolve through rehearsals and then performing it at a high level. So an interesting aspect there is what did you all take away from that that affected your process afterwards? I have all your lead sheets from those albums [Casting for Gravity, Fast Future]. My students and I look at your lead sheets in jazz composition classes and I explain what I assume is the rehearsal process and rationale for the format of the charts. They're very minimalist in that everything's there that you need: a saxophone line, bassline and chords. “This is probably what Donny gives to the group.” But sometimes on your records not everything on the sheet is presented the same way or even in the same order.
But then Blackstar happened and you’re doing a similar process, at least theoretically, but you're doing it with this rock star. Can you contrast the two environments and experiences? And then how much of an impact has that had on your creative process after that?
Donny: Yeah, the lead sheet thing, it's like you described. Often I have some piano voicings written and I always feel like that's because I want to show the starting point where it was conceived, what I was hearing. Then, often the bass line depends on who's playing bass. With Tim [Lefebvre], he'll often start to augment things and improvise with what's there. Jason will start with the lead sheet, but the more he has the song internalized, he’ll process it through his lens and he does his thing with it. I've always felt that when you have musicians who are on a high level, you want them to do what they do. When I think of the band leaders like, you know, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, they didn't seem like they were control freaks. It seemed like they were just letting it all happen to a certain degree. And that's the philosophy I think I've always gone with. I just want people to feel empowered to bring their thing to it. And when I need to say something, I say something. But I'm wanting the lead sheets to contain the essential elements of the song.
This is something that was fantastic when I was in Dave Douglas's band. He had really concise lead sheets that were clear, that had all the essential elements in place. So that's what I strive for. I don't want to have six page charts. I just want to keep it concise, clear, and not overwritten. So it's not like you're having to decode F over E over C over G5 or something. It should be clear for the musicians, so they can get comfortable as quickly as possible. And from that comfortable space, they play more. I just happen to hear music that way. That was sort of my modus operandi.
But then with David, with Blackstar, I mapped everything out. This was particularly true because I wanted to add all these voices with flute, alto flute, and clarinet and some other things. So I had a lot of the music laid out, multiple parts for different woodwinds, and a sense of what the song forms were going to be. I wrote out the bass, the harmony, and learned them. My parts had almost everything except the drum grooves on them.
But everybody had their method. Tim, for example: he wrote out the bass lines from the original demos and wrote out the song form. I don't even know if he physically wrote them out or learned them by ear. But he didn't take the lead sheets that had more information included. Mark made a little drum chart of the drum pattern because all the drum patterns that we had from the demos were all alike. But for me, in the role of the orchestrator, in a sense, I had done a lot because that’s usually just how I do it anyway.
So that's basically what was happening with Blackstar. And then after that, I think I've continued in a similar way, still just trying to have a lead sheet with melody, bass line and chord voicing. It just feels like it's the clearest method.
And then when I bring those kinds of charts in, I often see what the musicians do first. And sometimes I'll say, “Okay, can it be more of the written bass line?” or “Can there be more of the original chord voicings that I have there?” But I'm always curious to see what people do and what they bring to it. There's a lot of opportunity for learning there for me. And to figure out what I want more of in the music.
As you can imagine, there's a lot of trust involved in that. And we've built that over the years.
Dave: I wrote down something else along those lines. You've been playing with some of the same people for a long time. Clearly they’re good enough to play great things in many contexts and you’ve had enough time together to develop a rapport. And it’s a composition cliché to talk about writing for certain players and having them in mind while you’re thinking of ideas. But by this point, have there been instances where you actually know those guys so well that you actually predicted how they were going to transform their part of the music after a series of rehearsals?
Donny: I had that on “Body Blow” and “Fly My Spaceship” where I could hear them playing on it. And it was like a dream or like there were clouds there. So I couldn't sit here and transcribe what they were doing, but I could hear it in a way. And then they did it and what they did transcended my dream. It's so totally killing. But it was in line with the spirit that I felt that they would bring to it. And I knew that they would bring it and it was amazing.
Dave: And so in that relationship that you've cultivated with that group for a long time, there are clear advantages and there's a comfort level to it.
Donny: Yeah and there are some other folks, too, who are part of this who aren't on, I Want More. Guys like Nate Wood. He's a great drummer or bass player and has played a lot of gigs with me.
Dave: Great drummer or bass player, or drummer and bass player, right? At the same time.
Donny: Yeah, yeah. And other guys: Jonathan Marin, an amazing bass player, has played with me a lot. And Zach Danziger, drummer. Those guys have logged a lot of hours. They're all on Blow. They're just not on this particular record. But there's a lot of common language that's shared among these guys, among everybody. There’s a common aesthetic. And they all are just great improvisers and musicians, but also flexible to the point where, as your concept evolves, they go with you.
Dave: Which is good because your records are quite different over the last decade. You're not constantly going, “Oh well, I got to find a new group of guys because these ones aren't capable of matching my current concept.”
Donny: Right. That obviously doesn’t need to be part of the thought process.
Dave: I just wrote a title card recently trying to define what jazz is. It seems like something people are constantly obsessed about.
"Jazz is defined by the experience of the players. Modern jazz is music played by jazz musicians. Players who have immersed themselves in the history of jazz bring everything about that experience with them to whatever new music they're creating. You can hear it in what they play. It's a concept of time and feel and sensibility. It's melodic and harmonic language and superimposition. Categorization of music happens because specific elements are often easily apparent, have an important historical and social context, and because being aware of detail is part of how we think. Jazz musicians are capable of participating in making music that isn't jazz when it's a conscious choice. But, when it's their music, top jazz musicians are playing music that no non-jazz musician could or would play."
There would be people, I imagine, checking out your records from the last ten years, and say, “Well, that's not jazz.” And my contention would be the opposite. If you or your collaborators weren't jazz musicians, you couldn't play this music.
Branford [Marsalis] can play classical alto saxophone literature in front of an orchestra and he’s clearly, deliberately not playing jazz. You could argue, as a jazz musician, or just an individual, that he might bring something different to that environment, but it's not jazz.
But on all of your records, when it’s your music, everything that you do just has a jazz musician's mentality. You can't escape it.
Donny: Right. Jazz is just a big part of my DNA, I think. I remember, at a certain point, I was kind of questioning, how do I define myself? Do I define myself as a jazz musician or not? And there was a period there where I was like, I'm not really sure. I'm just trying to be open to where it's leading, and so on and so forth. There was a period where I really questioned it after Blackstar and when I was doing Blow. That record, especially. We were touring and I was singing and playing saxophone and had a singer in the band playing guitar.
But a little further down the road, I think the jazz improviser’s approach is just a big part of my musical DNA. The question about “What is jazz?” comes up sometimes and, “How is this record related to jazz?” I don't really think about too much. It’s more important to think about, “Where is the music that's meaningful to me and that feels honest?”
And to just follow that path and not worry about, “Is it a hybrid? “Is it… whatever?” I'm really consumed with that – trying to make an honest representation of the music and where my heart is and where the journey has led me. But, yeah, I'm definitely coming from a jazz perspective, there's no question.
Dave: Which is why I think the creative choices you’re making are interesting because you could be cranking out hard bop records every six months as well as anybody who's doing it.
Donny: It's interesting. I played a gig the other night. Actually, with Joe Lovano's band and Joe couldn't make it. It was all playing acoustic jazz and, man, it felt like it's been a long time since I've done that. It was really fun.
Dave: There’s an interesting quote about you exchanging emails with David Bowie and saying to him, “Here are the tracks that I was checking out of yours.” And he actually told you, “Well, I'm into some different things now.” Basically he was saying “Don’t worry about trying to copy or take elements from my old music.” And does that maybe define your thought process as well?
Donny: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting. Go back twenty-five years or whatever. So I stopped listening to his hits and I just kept processing what he was sending me. And just kept on doing what I was doing outside of that. And yeah, I don't really go back and listen to my discography or anything. I'm just so focused on the present and on moving forward.
Dave: I think that has turned into our main thesis for today and the most interesting topic, because it seems unique. Like I said at the beginning, from the artwork, from the presentation, from what seems to be a very conscious decision to roll out the material differently, to make a statement. And sometimes you see people going down those roads, finding an angle or packaging things in nicer wrapping, in order to compensate for something. But you're exploring those new things as somebody who has achieved almost everything jazz wise, on the same level as the other best people. I think there are a lot of lessons in there because at the moment you’re not taking the typical jazz pathway.
I’m sure there are people looking at you and recognizing that, “He's not doing it the way others are doing it when I look around.” And it might give others permission to seek out something different.
I don't know that you’ll feel like you can even comment on this objectively, but significant change in your music was happening in the three or four years before Blackstar. I think it’s an interesting thought, imagining a different world where Bowie is just an amazingly-creative collaborator and his fame wasn’t a factor. That work will always be a milestone but your constant yearning to evolve and explore didn’t start with Blackstar. And the style of your most recent records can’t be 100% attributable to that event.
Donny: Right. I would agree with that. But that event was such a big deal, and I've said this before in interviews, it helped me to feel like anything was possible, and it was really affirming. There was a confidence that came out of that experience that has also played into things that have happened afterwards. I don't know that I would have made the record Blow if Blackstar hadn't happened. It's something I would have imagined, I think, but to actually have done it, I'm not sure. Of course. I'm just looking back. But it helped set the stage for sure for some of this.
Dave: Well, that's brilliant. I appreciate you talking with me. I would have loved to have been in that recording session a year and a half ago because I haven't been to New York since my first daughter was born, so I missed our book launch and several recording sessions since then. When you live in New Zealand and there are babies coming you can’t get back quickly in an emergency. And then there was COVID. Hopefully I’ll be able to see you in person again soon! You're a big inspiration to me and you're one of my favorite people.
Donny: Thank you, Dave. I appreciate that. It’s been great connecting with you.
Dave: You're also one of those guys that I think of when people say that jazz is dead or dying and there just won’t be the same players anymore. That always triggers the thought that, “There are always going to be people like Donny." I mean, I don't know what you were like when you were a kid, but I just imagine that, “Nothing was going to stop this guy from loving this music, from working his twenty million hours to get to where he's at.”
Shadows and Light
Matt Wilson Quartet