Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who comes to the Folly Theater on April 7, may be best known not for his jazz playing, but for his contributions to the last works of David Bowie, especially the widely praised “Blackstar” album.
And McCaslin, a seasoned soloist with a questing, keening sound, is still full of enthusiasm about the whole unexpected and unprecedented Bowie adventure.
“The experience was transformative for me and the band,” says McCaslin, 50. “He has changed me as a person and as a musician.”
He elaborates on being in the studio with Bowie: “He gave us free rein to do anything on this wonderful framework he had set. We had this sense of affirmation from David and (producer) Tony Visconti, and we had time to work things out. … There was a lot of trust. It was anything goes. But he was so focused, and not in a way with any anxiety or pressure. Very relaxed and very focused, never wasting energy.”
Just about everything on “Blackstar” is a first or second take, McCaslin says.
“We had a sense that everything was working together seamlessly in a very organic way.”
Working with Bowie, it turned out, wasn’t such a far cry from working with the jazz greats who have inspired McCaslin.
He grew up in California and his dad was a gigging jazz musician (and still is, at 90). He remembers going to gigs to help his dad set up the electric piano, the vibraphone and the marimba. He remembers being impressed by the band’s charismatic sax player.
“He had long hair and a big beard and played long solos with squeaks and whoops …. It was such a festive atmosphere when everything was clicking.
“And I remember looking down into the bell of his horn and seeing a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt and thinking how cool that was.”
OK, when you’re 10 years old or so, that might seem pretty impressive.
McCaslin took up the sax at 12. He got a lot of on-the-bandstand training with his dad. And when he was out of high school, he headed for the Berklee College of Music in Boston. After a while there, he came to the attention of vibraphonist Gary Burton, who gave him some of his first high-profile gigs.
After graduating Berklee in 1988, he gigged with Burton and bassist Eddie Gomez, then joined vibraphonist Mike Mainieri and the band Steps Ahead, and kept a full freelancing calendar. Not bad ways to start a career. But he wanted more.
Some gigs with pianist Danilo Perez in the ’90s caused a shift in his thinking.
“I felt like my whole focus had been on note choices and harmony for so long that I was out of balance. I had a decent amount of information in the harmonic realm, but my rhythmic vocabulary wasn’t developed.
“Rhythm grounds everything you play, everything you do in life. I wanted to work on that.”
And now, he is something of a virtuoso in that realm — his solos can ride the beat comfortably, or skitter ahead of it, or languish behind it with no fear of losing momentum.
By the mid-’90s, McCaslin had built a solid freelance career in New York. He came to work often with trumpeter Dave Douglas, who featured him generously. And he became an important soloist in the influential big band of Maria Schneider, who pushes her players to become storytellers on their instruments.
“I have a lot of admiration for her as composer and orchestrator, and also for her work ethic and humanity,” he says. “She’s a tremendous force.”
Working with Schneider has opened a lot of doors for McCaslin — including the doorway to Bowie.
“David had been a fan of Maria’s for quite some time. They started to collaborate on a piece in the spring of 2014 — there was going to be one song he was going to record with the band. During the course of their meetings she played him a record of mine, ‘Casting for Gravity,’ and suggested he do something with me.”
Now McCaslin and his band are performing some of Bowie’s songs, alongside pieces from their albums “Casting for Gravity” and “Fast Future,” and some new things. Along with McCaslin’s horn, the band has keyboardist Jason Lindner, drummer Mark Guiliana and bassist Jonathan Maron (known for his work with Groove Collective).
It’s a far cry from a restaurant gig with his dad, but McCaslin is up to the challenge.
McCaslin’s show is at 8 p.m. Friday, April 7, at the Folly, 300 W. 12th St. Tickets are $10 to $50. Call 816-474-4444 or check FollyTheater.org. McCaslin will participate in a question-and-answer session for ticketholders at 7 p.m.
Jon Batiste honored
Since 2005, the American Jazz Museum has given its Lifetime Achievement Award every spring, and this year’s choice is a little bit surprising: Jon Batiste — pianist, singer and bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
Batiste, at 30, says that he plays “social music,” music to bring people together and perhaps even make them dance. His band, Stay Human, is especially good at that. He’s a descendant of a prominent New Orleans-area musical family, and his good-guy persona on stage and television doesn’t seem to be a facade. He has also been named one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30.” So let’s celebrate this one with him.
▪ Trumpeter, composer and educator Ron McCurdy, formerly of the University of Kansas, is bringing a big project to town. When poet Langston Hughes died in 1967, he had written a series of poems to be set to music, “Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz,” but the musical end of the collaboration was unfulfilled. Now McCurdy has tried to tie up those loose ends in his Langston Hughes Project, which comes to the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 6. It’s a multimedia affair, with McCurdy’s jazz group, video and poetry. Tickets are $10.
▪ The next live performance-recording session for the “12th Street Jump” radio show honors lyricist Yip Harburg and blues singer Bessie Smith, and singer Molly Hammer is a guest. The session is at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd.
▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has a Monday jam, at 7 p.m. on April 3, led by singer Dave Rizer. Singer and multi-instrumentalist Lester “Duck” Warner performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 6. The band B2 Experience appears at 8:30 p.m. Friday, April 7. The Bosman Twins, Dwayne and Dwight, multi-reed artists from St. Louis, perform at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8.
▪ The Green Lady also has the band of drummer Danny Rojas and organist Everette DeVan at 6 p.m. Sunday, April 2, followed by tenor saxophonist Steve Lambert’s quintet at 10:30 p.m.; singer Molly Hammer at noon Monday, April 3, followed by organist Ken Lovern’s trio at 6 p.m. and vibraphonist Peter Schlamb’s trio at 10:30 p.m.; pianist Roger Wilder’s trio at 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 4, followed by a group led by bassist Gerald Spaits and reed man Charles Perkins at 10:30 p.m.; Lovern’s trio again at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 5, followed by saxophonist Ernest Melton’s quartet at 10:30 p.m.; Guitar Elation at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 6, followed by drummer Natalie Bates’ quartet at 10:30 p.m.; drummer Kevin Frazee’s trio at 2 p.m. Friday, April 7, followed by pianist Tim Whitmer’s quartet at 5:30 p.m., Schlamb’s Electric Tinks band at 9 p.m. downstairs and organist Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m. upstairs; and Lovern’s group at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 8, followed by Wilder’s quartet at 9 p.m.
▪ The Westport CoffeeHouse Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., has trumpeter Nate Nall’s quintet at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, and trombonist Marcus Lewis with guest tenor saxophonist Adam Larson at 4 p.m. Sunday, April 9.
▪ The midday jazz series at Johnson County Community College has pianist Andrew Ouellette’s trio at noon Tuesday, April 4, in the Recital Hall in Carlsen Center and tenor saxophonist Matt Otto’s group at noon on April 11.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751