THE last time Donny McCaslin played on Islay, he missed the ferry.
“I remember when we arrived it was a case of out of the car and into the action,” the Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist recalls. That was ten years ago. Returning for this year’s Lagavulin Islay Jazz Festival, this time he’ll be flying in. “I remember arriving and looking around at the landscape, which was so stark and beautiful, and the venues are all so different. I think, for me, though, the overriding experience was the sense of community. Moving from venue to venue you’re talking to folks as you walk in and at the hotel bar afterwards.”
He also tried Islay’s famed single malts: “I remember thinking this is the best whisky I’ve ever had.”
The festival has that effect. I recall another New York saxophonist, Jaleel Shaw, declaring bemusedly: “So many beautiful things ... and such a lot of sheep.”
McCaslin is speaking to me from Avatar studios in New York, where he is recording with the Maria Schneider Orchestra (with whom he was nominated for a Grammy the same year he last visited Islay). He was also in Avatar studios last summer when he guested with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, directed by his old Berklee college classmate, Tommy Smith, for their American Adventure album.
Smith will also be at this year’s Islay festival, duetting with pianist Brian Kellock, and McCaslin looks forward to catching up with him. The American will be playing with a trio of seasoned Scots jazzmen – guitarist Kevin MacKenzie (on whose 2009 East of East 7th Street the saxophonist played), bassist Calum Gourlay and drummer Doug Hough. They’ll play two gigs, one he says will be weighted towards standards such as Duke Ellington numbers and Andrew Hill’s Black Fire, while the other will feature material from his current album, Casting for Gravity.
That album sees the 48-year-old venturing into the realms of electronica while preserving the melodic invention of his playing. “I wanted to investigate electronic music and dubstep and I was looking for a way to combine that with my musical language. In some electronic music, they just set up these electronic landscapes and there’s not always so much melodic material or harmonic movement. I was thinking was there a way that I could capture the sonic element and the rhythmic element – that really busy, glitchy drum stuff – but also have more melodic and harmonic development and, of course, improvise as well?”
On the album he’s joined by Jason Lindner on keyboards, electric bassist Tim LeFebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, with voice and synthesiser contributions from producer and saxophonist David Binney. It certainly succeeds as an intriguing combination of an electronic palette of blips and washes and ambient funk with the kind of forceful playing that saw the album earn McCaslin another Grammy nomination. Just listen to his blowing on the climax of Praia Grande. Among other things, he covers Alpha and Omega, by the Scottish electronic music duo Boards of Canada. Listeners on Islay, he says, can expect a rather more unplugged version of material from the album.
McCaslin will also join fellow-tenor players Michael Buckley and Phil Bancroft, along with pianist Kellock, in Ionad Chaluim Chille Ìle, the island’s Gaelic college. Other acts at in the festival’s venues include the aforementioned Smith and Kellock duo in Lagavulin distillery, the effervescent young American singer-pianist Champian Fulton in the Gaelic college and classic piano jazz specialist Keith Nicholls with the emergent young Gramophone Jass Band in Rhinns Hall, Portnahaven. Trumpeter Colin Steele leads his soul-inflected Melting Pot band in Bruichladdich Hall while, just down the road in Bruichladdich distillery, the ebullient Trio AAB, featuring Phil and Tom Bancroft with Kevin MacKenzie, will dispense creative mayhem. Elsewhere, pianist Dave Milligan plays in the RSPB Visitor Centre at Loch Gruinart – and, yes, there’s a birdwatching walk beforehand.