Bringing Saxy Back

Chicagoan Dave McDonnell energizes the Cincy Jazz scene with dynamic chops and incredible experience

May 7, 2014 at 10:57 am
click to enlarge Dave McDonnell (Photo: Karra McDonnell)
Dave McDonnell (Photo: Karra McDonnell)

Dave McDonnell has found Cincinnati to his liking during the nearly five years since he relocated here from his native Chicago. He graduated from University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music program with a degree in Jazz Composition and has taken teaching posts at both CCM and the University of Dayton.

McDonnell and his wife settled into their Cincinnati experience with their daughter’s arrival a couple years ago, but the saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist attended a similarly joyous birth when he and a collection of Chicago colleagues recorded his about-to-be-released Post Jazz album, the dragon and the griffin, under the banner of the Dave McDonnell Group.

“On the record, Joshua Abrams is the bass player and the drummer is Frank Rosaly; they’re both integral parts of the Chicago improvised Jazz community,” McDonnell says over tea on the porch of his Northside home. “The guitarist is (NYC’s) Chris Welcome … These are really busy dudes, especially the bass player and drummer, so it was like a game of chess. I drove to Chicago, the guitarist flew in, we did a rehearsal, then two gigs back to back with all the material, then we cut it in one day in the studio. It was pretty heavy, but they killed it.”

McDonnell has also assembled a contingent of local talent for area gigs, including members of local creative cooperative The Marburg Collective for the new album’s release show at The Comet on Monday. Given McDonnell’s work/life schedule, there was scant time to vet local players, let alone stage a band, but the dragon and the griffin’s completion forced his hand.

“You read about bands like Yes, where they found members by putting an ad in Melody Maker. That hasn’t worked since the ’70s,” McDonnell says. “You need to go out and be around, and I didn’t have time. When I was shopping this record around, one label said, ‘When are you playing this stuff next?’ And I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to Chicago in November …’ But I needed to man up and play this stuff here. I found some really great musicians: drummer Dan Dorff; a great bass player, Peter Gemus; and a guitarist named Brad Myers. We do the same tunes but it’s a different sound. I trust them just as much but it’s kind of neat to see.”

McDonnell characterizes the dragon and the griffin as mostly a mix of compositional and improvisational aspects, but the difference between the two Jazz approaches is seamless. That’s a testament to McDonnell’s writing skills and his players’ amazing facility for taking the thread of the composed portions and weaving spontaneous new patterns from it.

“I guess they’ve done their job as far as suggesting the vibe for the tunes,” McDonnell says. “That’s something I’ve been working on a lot — how do I write songs where it’s bringing up a new sensibility to the player but it’s not so different that it doesn’t feel right on their axes? I was really careful with these tunes, and these guys get it. I can let them be excellent musicians; I can stop worrying and just be a saxophone player.”

McDonnell’s preparation for the dragon and the griffin began in December 2012 when he began writing the material. Even as he shaped his musical ideas, he worked toward leaving the necessary space for the invention he wanted his players to bring to the table.

“It’s got the Jazz format; there are straight-ahead tunes where the bass player walks, but even on the ones where there’s a groove, we follow format,” McDonnell says. “The heads are a little longer, but the ones that are more groove oriented, there are two minutes where it’s totally composed and everything’s there, then it solos in the normal Jazz way.

“I’ve seen guys do sessions where they literally have a couple of scrawls of melody on a piece of paper and that’s a tune. This was definitely more than that. It was crafted, kind of like Ornette Coleman’s stuff, like ‘Lonely Woman’ or ‘Congeniality,’ where their pulse is different, so that has to be stated exactly and once it hits the solo, it goes. We’re improvising for sure, but in different degrees.”

McDonnell has a fascinatingly extensive and diverse musical resume. After college graduation in the mid-’90s, he became associated with the Elephant 6 collective through his drummer in Free Jazz group Bablicon, who was also drumming for Neutral Milk Hotel; McDonnell scored studio time with Neutral Milk Hotel and a touring gig with Olivia Tremor Control. From there, he aligned himself with a dizzying variety of outfits — previously with The Hats, Icy Demons, Need New Body and Orso and currently with Diving Bell, Herculaneum and Michael Columbia — and explored various different Jazz directions simultaneously.

McDonnell doesn’t see a return to the kind of relentless gigging he did in his earlier days, when he was waiting tables and teaching private lessons to get by. He still tours sporadically with Herculaneum, and his improvisational sax/laptop/drums trio Diving Bell is active on the road as well (they’ve played a handful of local shows in recent months).

“I’m too old for that,” McDonnell says with a smile. “It was cool and I learned a lot from that, but I like keeping active. It’s good for me.”

McDonnell is heartened by the saxophone’s return to a position of some respect after having its reputation tarnished by artists and producers who turned it into a cliché.

“For my generation, the sound of a saxophone solo almost ruins saxophone,” McDonnell says. “How many Miami Vice episodes alone (caused me to be) like, ‘Stop, you’re ruining my dream’? But I feel like we’ve come through that. Now it’s cool. You can put saxophone back in those environments. I was always trying to do it, but people were turned off. They’d be like, ‘OK, awesome, he’s playing bass, it sounds like some German Krautrock stuff, that’s cool. OK, he’s going to loop the bass … oh no, he’s bringing out the saxophone!’

“Now we’re on the other side of that. Saxophone doesn’t have to just live in Jazz, and if it’s in Rock it doesn’t have to be this super Blues-ed out thing. It can sound more like Afrobeat. That’s what I love about that stuff; Western Africa must not have had Miami Vice because they’re totally fine with the bass, guitar and drums grooving out for 10 minutes and the sax will just go. What I was trying to do with this record was, in a sense, get at that.”

DAVE MCDONNELL GROUP performs at an album release party at The Comet on Monday, May 12. More info here.