.Donny McCaslin returns home

Blowing into town

As an elite-level saxophonist and composer, Donny McCaslin plays in many different jazz clubs and other venues all over the world. But Kuumbwa Jazz Center, where he and his quartet will perform on April 15, is the place that inspired him to spend his life playing and writing music.

His return to  his hometown should bring back a flood of memories.

All of his blood family—with the exception of his wife and children—still live around Santa Cruz, including a brother, a sister and their spouses and kids. They are paying their own way into the nonprofit Kuumbwa, he noted proudly.

“Kuumbwa is a very special place for me; I was fortunate to have access to it as a child, so much great music; seeing (drummer) Elvin Jones and the Jazz Machine and McCoy Tyner, a couple weeks later, really changed my life. I really appreciate Tim Jackson and his vision for that place, and how it’s grown. It’s very special to step on that stage and play in front of the community that I grew up with.”

Memories like the weekly gigs his dad, Don McCaslin, would do at the Cooper House—“helping him set up and then sitting on the bandstand all day.” Donny started learning the saxophone at 12, and by 14 was sitting in with combos led by his dad, who was at the center of a jazz scene from  the ’60s to the ’90s.

secure document shredding

McCaslin, 57, attended Aptos High School and got an early start with the school’s jazz program, led by veteran musician Don Keller. After high school he attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music and after getting his degree, he joined vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band for four years. In 1991, he relocated to the jazz mecca—New York City.

His career got a boost in 2014 when orchestra leader Maria Schneider recommended him to the late David Bowie. Bowie’s people came to hear McCaslin’s combo play in a Manhattan club “and the next day he emailed me asking to record some music.” In November 2014, McCaslin played saxophone on Bowie’s single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” After that, he played on and contributed arrangements to Bowie’s 2016 swan song album, Blackstar, which won five Grammys.

Bowie’s influence was a major factor in McCaslin taking a major, stylistic turn, when he decided to try foot-pedal-controlled electronics effects to shape his saxophone sound. This effect evolved into being the main thrust of McCaslin’s live shows. “It’s become another tool to expand my sound. I imagine that sound now when I am writing. So, [Bowie] was very prescient.”

McCaslin says the music the band plays this time at Kuumbwa will largely consist of tunes from his most recent release—last year’s I Want More.

Last March, he played Kuumbwa as part of a 40-year reunion of the salsa band he played with as a 16-year old, Los Schleppos Tipicos.

This summer he’ll be playing several festivals overseas, and at the Kennedy Center in NYC with the Bowie tribute orchestra, with 75 pieces and his combo.

“The Bowie experience had a profound effect on my own music,” McCaslin says. “Suddenly, everything felt possible in a way it hadn’t before—hybrid concepts, how to put influences together…everything felt more possible.”

Lately he has also been touring with another iconic pop star,  Elvis Costello. Hardcore jazz purists might not appreciate the nontraditional effects pedals, but being confined by genre “rules” is unhealthy for any creative musician. And McCaslin’s words pretty well sum up what the original creators and movers of jazz roaming the earth have always done, moving the music forward, preventing it becoming a sort of aural museum artifact. Donny McCaslin plays at Kuumbwa Jazz Center at 7pm. Tickets $47.25/$42 adv/$23.50 students. 320-2 Cedar St, Santa Cruz. kuumbwajazz.org

changed this to plural from Tipico


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