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McCaslin: Cool + Combustible
Donny McCaslin – Casting For Gravity (2012)
by S. Victor Aaron (Something Else)
Perpetual Motion was Donny McCaslin’s big change of direction record, one which brought him a bevy of accolades last year, and rightly so, for a successful transition from the acoustic format to one that intelligently blends acoustic with electronic sonorities. This year’s Casting For Gravity, out next week, will immediately put a new tag on that prior record: transitional. McCaslin is no stranger to challenges; a quick survey of this tenor saxophonist’s twenty-year recording career tell you that (including a mid-90s stint in the progressive fusion troupe Steps Ahead and a late 90s tour with the improvised bop ensemble Lan Xang). But now, McCaslin as a solo artist is challenging himself even more.
Casting, featuring keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana is a significant statement from an artist who makes a statement with each release. Yes, the music is contemporary — there’s plenty of modern funk rhythms and prominent synthesizers — but McCaslin never loosened his grip on jazz, either. There’s plenty of the improvisation, immediacy and knottiness of jazz, and at the center there’s remains the saxophone nurtured by Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins and Michael Brecker; a unique full toned, limber dialect that knows when to take chances and when to play it cool: if nothing else, “Bend” is a brisk bop tune retrofitted with sinewy grooves and a cool, analog synth solo by Lindner. Ultimately it’s McCaslin’s combustible horn that delivers the song, however.
“Stadium Jazz,” a name that announces big aspirations, reaches them with a propulsive, shifty rhythms, and Pat Metheny rich and fluid melodic progressions. McCaslin sends everyone out on the tightrope together and they make it across such acrobatic grooves such as “Tension” like the Flying Wallendas.
Though Lindner’s piano and electronic keyboards play a key role in building more of what McCaslin calls the “sonic layers,” McCaslin leans a lot in his muscular rhythm section to provide the dynamism on these songs. “Losing Track of Daytime” contains some great telepathy between him and Lefebvre, and on the ballad “Love Song For An Echo,” the bassist’s moody intonations set the harmonic foundation for a moody song. Lefebvre even assumes something of a guitar role on “Casting For Gravity.”
It’s always fascinating to hear a jazz artist cover an electronica song, to see if they can take a song originally as cold and mechanical and make it human and emotional. McCaslin turns the tables on that thought; his rhythm section flamboyantly tramples on the hypnotically appealing melody of Board of Canada’s “Alpha and Omega” (listen to stream above), but that’s no criticism: it breaks up any hint of monotony, catching the listener off guard. Indeed, imaginative takes on other people’s songs is nothing new to the guy who thought of playing “Tenderly” at a 5/4 gait way back on his 1998 debut Exile and Discovery.
Ten solo albums in, Donny McCaslin is still reaching outside of comfort areas to find ways to keep his art fresh, vital and contemporary while remaining accessible. A musician who has always been hard to pin down to a particular style within jazz has made his music even more elusive, but more reason to dig into it, too. Casting For Gravity is one of the smarter, most consistent contemporary jazz records of the last few years.