Tag Archives: Saxophone

Donny McCaslin on Collaborating with Bowie on “Blackstar,” and Being Influenced by deadmau5 and Aphex Twin

Donny McCaslin

Photos by Jimmy King

Change is a common theme in the music of Donny McCaslin. The saxophonist came up in traditional jazz, but he’s long since taken steps that have moved him away from that genre tag. His early recordings fell dead-center in post-bop territory, but as his fascination with electronica increased, so did his obsession with finding a way of adapting those new sounds to the language of jazz improvisation. McCaslin’s 2012 recording Casting For Gravity was a career-defining moment; on Gravity, McCaslin amped up his conventional electro-acoustic sound into something that was catchy like pop music, but was already thinking three steps ahead. It was so far from blues and swing that it felt like McCaslin was inventing a new genre whole cloth. He continued that trend on Fast Forward, settling fully into his new form of expressionism, and setting up his next step.

Then came Blackstar.

In a story that has now been well-documented, Bowie hired McCaslin and his quartet to collaborate with him on what would turn out to be his final album. Like McCaslin, Bowie also began as a genre traditionalist before transcending and then entirely reshaping it. Bowie’s and McCaslin’s separate creative arcs dovetailed to a place where the mutual influences of rock, pop, electronica and jazz improvisation gave them common ground.

We spoke with McCaslin about the Bowie experience, how their respective visions played out on the recording of Blackstar, and how that experience helped shape McCaslin’s new album, Beyond Now.

Continue reading

New Directions in Sax

Colin Webster. Photo by Dawid Laskowski.

Colin Webster. Photo by Dawid Laskowski.

Three simple syllables that will strike fear into the heart of any self-respecting saxophonist: Kenny G. For many, the corkscrew-haired purveyor of sax-lead muzak represents the very apotheosis of the cheesy ends toward which the instrument can be put. From the obligatory reverb-soaked break on an 80s power ballad to the hackneyed excesses of jazz-funk, it’s certainly true that the unfairly-maligned instrument has been put to some rather questionable causes. But there is another, slightly less well-known history of the saxophone, one that runs from John Coltrane’s game-changing A Love Supreme, through the transcendental ragings of Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, to the post-tonal textures of Peter Brötzmann and Evan Parker. As a voice of spiritual ecstasy or an instrument of sonic warfare, the saxophone is far from the window-dressing it figures as in pop music.

Yet with recent innovations likes the monolithic endtimes squall of Borbetomagus or the marathon breathing runs of Colin Stetson, it’s tempting to think that the potentialities of the saxophone are all but exhausted. This, however, is not the case, and while incremental pushes in new directions are constantly being made in the worlds of left-field jazz, free improv and noise, a few new outlier voices come to the fore. These artists—Colin Webster in the UK, Travis Laplante and Andrew Bernstein in the US—are united in their thoroughly physical approach to their innovations of saxophone-based music. In their own ways, they each push both themselves and their instruments to physical extremes in order to wrest strange and exhilarating tones from their chosen instrument. The ends toward which they push themselves, however, vary widely.

Colin Webster is currently laying waste to the UK avant scene with his explosive yet nuanced noise. Indeed, the glut of past and present projects he has been or is currently involved with is daunting both in its length and the sheer ferocity of its content. But whether in bands, combos or solo, his playing always has his core, raw qualities—abrasiveness, extremity, and oddness. Webster started playing sax at age 14—coincidentally, the same age that legendary free improv saxophonist Evan Parker picked up the instrument. But after fruitless collaborations with rock bands and electronic producers during college he finally found a furrow in the form of music’s more atonal end, one that’s led him to the extremes textures that the saxophone can offer, as he explains, “When I started to hear more free jazz, improvised music, and contemporary classical music, and learn about these other ways of making music, it opened another portal to new possibilities. It also made me realize there was a huge range of sounds on the saxophone that I hadn’t explored yet.”

Continue reading