Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Donny McCaslin Passes the Blindfold Test

(More from the 54th Monterey Jazz Festival, September 17-19)
Donny McCaslin (L) and Dan Oullette (R) by John Whiing
It was the perfect day for a mid-coast California outdoor festival. Blue skies, bright sun, but not too hot. A crowd turned out for "An Afternoon in Treme" in the Arena at 1 p.m., and even more came later for Huey Lewis & The News at 3 (a soulful, rocking good time). In between, a respectable number of aficionados (okay, jazz nerds) made their way to Dizzy's Den at 2 for the annual live DownBeat Blindfold Test.

Begun by Leonard Feather in the 1940s for Metronome magazine, the Blindfold Test is now one of DownBeat's most popular features. In simplest terms, a jazz journalist plays a series of recordings for a jazz musician, and the musician identifies (or tries to identify) who's playing. Saxophonists are asked about saxophonists, trumpeters about trumpeters, and so on.

Jazz writer Dan Ouellette is a frequent Blindfold Test contributor and has for many years hosted the live version at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Under Ouellette's hand, the test is more than an aural/oral exam. It's a freewheeling conversation about music, and a rare opportunity to hear a musician think out loud about what he or she is hearing.

This year, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin was in the hot seat. After joking that his friends in the audience should feel free to text him the answers, he settled in and listened intently as Ouellette lobbed musical hardballs. He answered in threes—"It could be David Murray, Von Freeman, or Charles Lloyd"—and explain why he thought each was a possibility. He pretty much nailed the test. We saw how much he enjoyed listening to the music (responding with "Yeahs!" and "Mmmms!") and learned that he looks for the feeling of a piece and the humanity of the player. Commenting on what turned out to be a Von Freeman track (appropriately named "Never Fear, Jazz Is Here"), he noted the freedom of the player, and his devil-may-care attitude. 

Commenting later on Stanley Turrentine: "You feel it in your body when he's playing."

"That Turrentine track is from an album called 'Don't Mess with Mr. T.,'" Ouellette tells McCaslin.

"I won't mess with him," McCaslin says.

It would be messing with the test to give more away—what was played, what McCaslin said—because the print version will be published later this year in DownBeat magazine.

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