Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now – Motéma

Now is the time for saxophonist Donny McCaslin.

Donny McCaslin – Beyond Now [TrackList follows] – Motéma MTA-CD-211, 62:57 [10/14/16] *****:

(Donny McCaslin – tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet; Jason Lindner – keyboards; Tim Lefebvre – electric bass; Mark Guiliana – drums; Jeff Taylor – vocals (track 2); David Binney – additional synths, vocals (tracks 5, 9); Nate Wood – guitar (track 2))

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin was already on the rise in the jazz world, but his collaborative work on David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, pushed McCaslin into realms of acclaim and notice: which is why McCaslin’s latest outpouring, the hour-long Beyond Now, has generated a lot of interest from folks both within and outside the jazz community. The key thing to note, though, is that Beyond Now affirms McCaslin’s importance. The nine tracks (five originals and four stimulating covers) have high-quality virtues and the broad, cutting-edge jazz displays McCaslin and his quartet’s exhilarating comprehensiveness. This is a CD which amply showcases a band who knows how to do cross-genre jazz which straddles electronica, modern rock, contemporary jazz and more.

McCaslin’s brief but significant time with Bowie was life-changing. Beyond Now was inspired by and is a tribute to Bowie, and was recorded mere months after Bowie succumbed to cancer. It’s no surprise that McCaslin taped two Bowie songs. The first is a hybrid adaptation of “A Small Plot of Land” (from Bowie’s 1995 album, Outside). McCaslin maintains Bowie’s techno-rock arrangement, complete with guest vocalist Jeff Taylor (who thankfully doesn’t try to echo Bowie’s deeper range) and guest guitarist Nate Wood (whose tetchy contributions provide a sharp inclination). McCaslin and his band lash into a ‘90s rock trait but embrace a jazz flair not apparent on Bowie’s version. About four minutes into the 6:24 cut, McCaslin steps in with an intense sax solo, and then the vocals and rock arrangement end the piece. Even better is McCaslin’s nearly nine-minute rendition of “Warszawa,” a neo-instrumental from Bowie and Brian Eno’s 1977 LP, Low. McCaslin and his group sustain Bowie’s austere, oppressive disposition, and then crank up the psychological features, layering dark synths, vibrating saxophone, skittish percussion and producing an otherworldly mood.

McCaslin is one of a number of jazz artists (trumpeter Dave Douglas is another example) who find inspiration in electronic dance music (EDM for short). McCaslin redoes Deadmau5’s keyboard-kindled instrumental, “Coelacanth 1,” and turns it into something far greater than the original. In the hands of Deadmau5, “Coelacanth 1” was a minor morsel reminiscent of early Tangerine Dream or pre-stardom Vangelis. McCaslin initially preserves Deadmau5’s icy atmosphere, but then he and drummer Mark Guiliana add ghostly touches, including ethereal sax lines and oscillating brushes and cymbals. Another intriguing cover is “Remain,” which comes from Mutemath, the New Orleans alt-soul/post-rock unit. “Remain” is an expressive slow-burner, with McCaslin’s tenor sax replicating Mutemath singer Paul Meany’s heightened emotionalism about hope, belief and choice.

McCaslin’s own compositions are stand-outs. The seven-minute opener “Shake Loose” is a first-rate instance of how excellent this band can be. Tim Lefebvre supplies a throbbing electric bass, Jason Lindner slips in an R&B-fueled keyboard vamp, and McCaslin varies between vectoring sax lines and sizzling soloing. It’s interesting how the quartet manages to create a spacey, late night techno tone crossed with a fusion-jazz characteristic. The eight-minute title track has an extended arrangement which coils through several segments, including a blithe almost comfortable section, then the foursome spiral to potency, fronted by what seems like scorching electric guitar but what is probably Lindner’s fiery keyboards. Throughout, Lefebvre’s resourceful and pounding bass keeps a rhythmic depth supplemented by Guiliana’s constantly fluctuating drums and percussion. The nine-minute “Bright Abyss” has a similar deportment, but done with a different approach. The detailed arrangement—complemented by David Binney’s extra synths—swings from post-bop to slight funky jazz, with abundant room for exploration. McCaslin’s most affecting composition is the eight-minute “Glory,” which begins with Lindner’s acoustic piano and McCaslin’s probing sax. Guiliana presents a swaying rhythmic stride while Lefebvre accentuates the tune’s harmonics. Eventually, the quartet notches up the dynamism, and the music becomes uplifting and inspirational. David Bowie might have brought McCaslin more notice, but it’s McCaslin’s inventiveness, creativity and sense of musical adventure which put Beyond Now on the top of many end of year lists, and chances are his next project will be just as noteworthy, fascinating and absorbing.

TrackList: Shake Loose; A Small Plot of Land; Beyond Now; Coelacanth 1; FACEPLANT; Warszawa; Glory; Remain

—Doug Simpson

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