Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

Donny McCaslin finds himself at a great musical crossroads

The saxophonist and band leader behind Bowie’s final album Blackstar releases a bold LP with a new singer at its core.

Donny McCaslin is no stranger to Montreal’s Jazz Fest. When he returns to the festival this weekend, it’ll be his second time at the Gèsu — as a band leader, that is; he’d already played that stage a number of times with the bands he was part of in the ’90s. The 19th century church, former Jesuit college and performing arts venue (it once served all three purposes simultaneously) is perhaps the perfect forum for McCaslin’s bold new sound, a grand experimental melee of improv, electronic music and pop that could be filed under “art rock.”

McCaslin’s stylistic leap, as heard on his latest album Blow, was made under the influence of his last major project, the one that has gained him a new fanbase (of people like me, who aren’t so deep into jazz): collaborating with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar.

Blackstar was a profound experience for me, a transformative one musically and personally,” McCaslin says. “The record Beyond Now that we recorded a few months after David’s passing — some of those songs are influenced by songs of David’s, and I was really trying to capture the emotional gravitas that Blackstar had — but the deeper lessons that I experienced through Blackstar kind of came out more on a grander scale on Blow.

“I remember David saying to me something like, ‘You know you’re onto something when you’re uncomfortable — if you’re feeling comfortable, it means you might be doing the same thing over and over.’ That was something that I really took to heart, and also the profound fearlessness that he exhibited throughout his career — he exemplified that and he lived that, and it’s something I will always strive for. 

“[With Blow], I was definitely feeling uncomfortable at moments, wondering, ‘Are people gonna like this?’ but having had the Blackstar experience somehow made me feel more confident to really go for what I was hearing and have the courage to let that manifest itself musically.”

The key creative takeaway from that project — given that McCaslin had only ever worked in the instrumental realm, with sax leading the way — was the introduction of vocals as the centrepiece. “Blackstar for me is the blueprint of how to integrate vocals and all these other things happening that are interesting and valuable, and there’s still improvisation.

“There was a period when I was working on the music [for Blow] where the role of the saxophone was not clear. I just wasn’t sure where it was gonna go. It was like being out at night trying to find something without a map and without a GPS, but I know there’s something out there, I can kind of hear it. As I got closer, the more I worked, things started coming together and a big part of that was Ryan Dahle from Limblifter and Mounties.

“I was introduced to Ryan as a potential collaborator and I listened to the Limblifter record and I was immediately drawn to it. I was drawn to the poetry of his lyrics, strong melodies, beautiful vocal harmonies. All of that really spoke to me.”

For the first time, Dahle will be accompanying McCaslin and his band — Jason Linder, Tim Lefebvre and Zach Danziger — for the duration of the current tour, which had just begun when I reached McCaslin by phone. He was in Santa Cruz, the California town where he grew up, a place he credits with helping him develop a broad musical DNA. His father was a jazz musician who played the Great American Songbook along with Latin jazz and funky R&B, McCaslin played Duke Ellington music five days a week in high school while also playing in an eight-piece salsa ensemble, and he saw all the great reggae acts of the day live — Santa Cruz was a hotspot for the likes of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh.

McCaslin would go on to explore folkloric music of the Americas and various permutations of improv before deciding to make an electric record (Perpetual Motion, which was followed by Casting Gravity). It was at that point that Lefebvre, Linder and Mark Guiliana joined the band and got McCaslin hooked on electronic music and drum & bass.

“I had just a surface knowledge of [that kind of music] at that point, but touring with them and seeing what their influences were, that was a whole new world for me. I was exploring the intersection of improvisation and electronica- and drum & bass-influenced music. That’s kind of where I was when I met David.”

With Dahle, a new creative chapter has begun for McCaslin, a collaboration that will continue beyond Blow. They’ve already written and performed a couple of new tracks and will be debuting more on this tour. Perhaps their next album will be as unexpected as the first.

Blow is not something I would have expected 10 years ago. I would never have thought that I would be at this point, but here I am, and I absolutely love it.” ■

Donny McCaslin plays as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival at the Gèsu (1200 Bleury) on Saturday, June 29, 10:30 p.m., $51.50