Santa Cruz music fans have been following saxman Donny McCaslin’s incredible growth as a musician and musical innovator since he was a kid playing around town in his father Don McCaslin’s iconic jazz band Warmth. The group Donny put together as a teenager is a bit of a local legend, having played the Monterey Jazz Festival three years in a row while he was still at Aptos High.
Most of the world, however, discovered Donny McCaslin in 2016, when David Bowie brought him in with his New York jazz combo to collaborate on Blackstar, Bowie’s final album.
McCaslin is the kind of boundary-bludgeoning, genre-hyphenating talent that some people can’t quite wrap their heads around. In other words, a perfect match for indie-rock madman Mark Kozelek, who started his career fronting the San Francisco 4AD band Red House Painters in the late ’80s, and in 2002 more or less restarted that project as Sun Kil Moon. In 2010, Sun Kil Moon evolved into a solo project for Kozelek, who also records under his own name, leading to a prolific decade of increasingly wild experimentation with different collaborators.
“Donny and I met a few years ago in Australia. We were playing different nights at the same venue and he joined us on stage on his night off,” says Kozelek. “I later learned it was him who worked on David Bowie’s Blackstar, and I loved the horns on that record. He’s a great collaborator because he’s a genius sax player, and knows how to listen and adapt to any style. He finds a spot in the music that makes sense.”
Sun Kil Moon contributed to McCaslin’s 2018 album Blow, with Kozelek unleashing a very weird and funny story in “The Opener” (the song also has a great video). In turn, McCaslin’s contributions are essential to the newest Sun Kil Moon album, which was almost called Mark Kozelek with Donny McCaslin and Jim White—until Kozelek saw the title for hip hop duo Suicideboys’ 2018 debut album I Want to Die in New Orleans, and renamed his record I Also Want to Die in New Orleans.
What McCaslin and Kozelek did on “The Opener” would have fit right into I Also Want to Die in New Orleans. Beginning with 2014’s Benji, Kozelek’s Sun Kil Moon albums have become increasingly sprawling, as he’s taken his trademark laid-back vocal style and stretched it into a vehicle for epic stories that are sometimes spoken, sometimes sung. On the new record, McCaslin helps him open up these unorthodox songs even more, providing a richer, more complex (and more unapologetically jazz) backdrop for the narratives than they had on last year’s This is My Dinner. On songs like “Couch Potato” and “I’m Not Laughing at You” (both of which run just under 12 minutes), the sonic backdrops are essential to the way the words come across.
Kozelek says he didn’t just stumble into this shift in style five years ago.
“Once you’ve made 30 or 40 conventional albums and you’re pushing 50, it’s time to make a change, unless you want to become what they call a hack,” says Kozelek. “I don’t have an ounce of hack energy in my blood. Mid-life told me it was time to explore collaborating with guys like Jimmy LaValle,
Justin Broadrick, Donny McCaslin, Sean Yeaton, Steve Shelley, Jim White, and Ben Boye, and it’s broadened my horizons. I’m loving playing music with all of those guys.”
One of Kozelek’s trademarks is interesting covers, which have ranged from a slew of AC/DC folk-ups to a whole album of Modest Mouse songs on the 2005 Sun Kil Moon record Tiny Cities to the Misfits’ “Green Hell” and Dayglo Abortions’ “I Killed Mommy” on 2013’s Like Rats to standards like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on 2016’s Mark Kozelek Sings Favorites. Longtime fans will appreciate that he hasn’t abandoned the art, revisiting AC/DC’s “Rock ’N’ Roll Singer” and detouring into a one-minute take on the Partridge Family theme “Come On Get Happy” on This is My Dinner. I most recently saw him at a Leonard Cohen tribute show at the Chapel in San Francisco doing a memorable version of “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
But Kozelek doesn’t see his cover songs the same way he does an album of originals like I Also Want to Die in New Orleans.
“Getting praise for how you cover songs is a hollow victory,” he says. “It’s a fun thing to do, but I’m backstage and everyone says, ‘That was amazing!’ and I say, “Yeah, Leonard Cohen wrote some great songs.”
Sun Kil Moon performs at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, April 17 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $30/$35. folkyeah.com.