Jazz tenor saxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin has thrived professionally in New York City for the past 25 years, but he’s a Californian at heart. Born and raised in Santa Cruz, McCaslin loves coming home, especially after spending a snow-filled season like he has the past several months.
Speaking by phone from San Luis Obispo where he was appearing with his quartet, he couldn’t help raving about West Coast weather. “Out here is like paradise. We’ve had the longest, most miserable winter on the East Coast,” said the affable McCaslin, who’s bringing his band to Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center for four nights, March 25-28.
They’ll play music from McCaslin’s latest record, “Fast Future,” to be released March 31. Though McCaslin thinks of the new record as a continuation of 2012’s highly regarded electronica-influenced “Casting Gravity,” the album pushes into new territory. McCaslin and his long-time producer, saxophonist-composer David Binney, thought they could continue exploring.
“Dave and I were talking about pushing it further into the electronica realm with the production stuff and the sonic landscapes,” McCaslin said.
McCaslin earned a 2014 Grammy nomination for best instrumental jazz solo on the track “Stadium Jazz” from “Casting Gravity,” which sounds like it could have been an outtake from fusion godfather Weather Report’s immensely popular and influential 1977 release “Heavy Weather.”
“Fast Future” definitely embeds contemporary, digitally based music in McCaslin and his band’s jazz improvisation, creating a modern, genre-defying sound. Wordless vocals wash on some tunes, and a poetic spoken-word segment plays on another. McCaslin’s band on the album includes noteworthy players such as drummer Mark Guiliana (who works with pianist Brad Mehldau in the electronic-duo Mehliana) and keyboardist Jason Lindner (who has his electronic-based band Now vs. Now, which includes Guiliana).
“We’re informed by electronica music and drum-and-bass music, and the guys in the band are drawing from that musical language and that’s the frame I’m improvising in and we’re improvising in together,” McCaslin said.
McCaslin and Binney also went to the EDM (electronic dance music) source for covers.
“One of the electronica guys I really like is Aphex Twin, and he has a record called ‘Drukqs’ with a song ‘54 Cymru Beats’ that was super fast. It must have been sequenced. I thought it could sound interesting on saxophone so I learned that,” McCaslin said.
Binney suggested the song “No Eyes,” by Will Wiesenfeld, an L.A.-based electronica singer-songwriter known professionally as Baths, and they recorded an arrangement of that as well.
“When I started the writing process, one thought I had was ‘Casting for Gravity’ was a really hard-hitting record, and I would like to make sure I wrote a ballad,” McCaslin said. That tune is “Midnight Light,” and though McCaslin has a forceful, distinctive personal tone, echoes of his antecedents like Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker surely are present.
McCaslin had an early exposure to jazz through his father, a jazz vibraphonist.
“His band played a combination of Great American Songbook tunes, Cal Tjader Latin jazz, and they would also play funky tunes like ‘Mustang Sally,’ ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy’ and ‘Feel Like Making Love,’” McCaslin said.
At Aptos High School, McCaslin’s band director, Don Keller, was an old Navy buddy of trumpeter Bill Berry, who played with the great Duke Ellington for many years. Berry gave his friend Keller hard-to-find Ellington charts to use with his high school jazz band students.
“So I was in this amazing situation –14 years old, a freshman in high school, and jazz band was a regular class every day, five days a week, and we were primarily playing Duke Ellington music,” McCaslin said. “So that’s where things started for me.”
McCaslin said he feels musically drawn to what is happening now, but he continues to delve into the past.
“I’m always trying to inform and fill out the historical side of my musical life,” he said. “That continues to this day, where I’m listening to Aphex Twin and Skrillex, but I’m also listening to Chu Berry or Don Byas, Louis Armstrong and Frankie Trumbauer. I’ve tried to have them go hand-in-hand – so I could be a well-informed musician.”
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.
The Donny McCaslin Group
What: Contemporary mainstream jazz from the award-winning jazz saxophonist and composer.
When: 8 p.m. March 25-28
Where: Vanderhoef Studio Theatre Cabaret, Mondavi Center, UC Davis
Information: (866)754-2787 or www.mondaviarts.org