Californian jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin isn’t only playing at North Sea Jazz Festival, but he’s also collecting the prestigious Paul Acket Award. Last year, he released his album ‘Beyond Now’, a posthumous homage to David Bowie, with who he collaborated for the singer’s famous last album ‘Blackstar’. So, needless to say: McCaslin’s career is going like crazy. But how did it all get to this?
What role did music play in your life when you were younger?
My parents split up when I was quite young. I would visit my father every week and he would take me to his gig where I’d help him set up his instruments. I would just sit there and listen for hours. At the age of 12, I started playing myself and it didn’t take long before my father asked me to join his band. Music quickly became my vehicle for self-expression.
Which musicians were played a lot around the house during your childhood?
Once I started playing, I began listening to lot of Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. My high school band director, Don Keller, had a library of Ellington charts before they were publicly available. He got them from his friend Bill Berry, who’d been in Duke’s band. Playing that music for 5 days a week changed my life.
“Playing Duke Ellington for 5 days a week changed my life.”
How did you get your hands on your first saxophone?
My father got it for me when I told him I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a student model but it got me going. I fell in love with the instrument right away.
Did you immediately realize you had a future as a musician?
From the first blow on I was all the way in, and after getting some encouragement along the way, I felt like it was the only choice for me.
What is the most beautiful compliment you’ve received so far?
I think it’s people telling me how much my music has meant to them. How it has helped them getting through difficult times. It’s incredible to hear that.
What is the most precious musical moment in your career so far?
It’s hard to choose, but the most recent one was recording with David Bowie. But it was also a thrill to play North Sea last year, for the first time as the leader of a group.
From all the different sounds you’ve explored, which one is the most fun to play?
I live and play in the moment, so I just play whatever aesthetic I’m into at that point in time. Over the last 5 years, I’ve been exploring electronica with Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre and Mark Guiliana. That has been a lot of fun.
You’ve collaborated with many great artists. What do you like most about working together with other musicians?
Learning from them and interacting with them. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a lot of greats and it’s unbelievable how much they’ve taught me.
“I’ve worked with a lot of greats and it’s unbelievable how much they’ve taught me.”
Which artists inspire you the most?
There are so many, but to name a few: Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Aphex Twin and David Bowie. You’ve collaborated with David Bowie for his album ‘Blackstar’.
What made him so inspiring as an artist?
For me, it was his presence, his vision, and his fearlessness.
What made you decide to dedicate your new album ‘Beyond now’ to Bowie?
I wrote the album shortly after working on Blackstar. That experience was still very present in my consciousness. It felt very connected to the work we had done, so I wanted to acknowledge his contribution to the evolution of the band.
What do you hope people will take away from your music?
I hope they feel joy, love, and honesty through the work.
This year you’ve also won the Paul Acket Award. How do you feel about winning this award for jazz talents?
I’ve put a lot of hard work into becoming the best musician I can, so it’s a real honour! An award like this inspires me to keep going on this path.
What does playing at North Sea Jazz Festival mean to you?
It’s an iconic festival. I was very fortunate to play here twice with my high school jazz band and I’ll never forget the joy and wonder of walking around and seeing so many incredible musicians. A lot of them were artists I had only listened to on records. Having them all in one building was wonderful.
What new projects are coming up?
I’m performing ‘Beyond Now’ live, but I’ve also started working on material for a new project!