Donny McCaslin – Fast Future (2015)

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The artistry of sax maestro Donny McCaslin has been hurtling toward the frontier of jazz over the last five years; perhaps the title of his latest release is an open acknowledgement of that.

Fast Future — just issued out of Dave Douglas’ Greenleaf Music imprint — is the third straight of McCaslin releases to eschew the well-regarded modern jazz upon which he had built a reputation to lunge forward with a music that uses jazz as a starting point, not a parameter-setter.

Donny McCaslin plays fusion now; not the Mahavishnu/Weather Report type but the highly melodic, dense, and funky kind Michael Brecker was making in the late 80s/early 90s powered by rollicking world rhythm and synth splotches, “This Side of Sunrise” shares many similarities with Brecker’s “Dogs In The Wine Shop.” The comparison is strengthened further by McCaslin’s saxophone style that owes a lot to the late tenor giant, a blissful blend of bebop, Trane and a lot of soul. But while McCaslin carries over a lot of Brecker’s character, his vocabulary speaks a different dialect, extended solos that leaves nothing on the table and employ a full range of tactics and moods (such as the tour-de-force on display during “Love and Living”).

Surrounding Donny McCaslinn’s very vibrant, modern sax are kindred spirits who also thrive in the progressive contemporary folds of jazz: Jason Lindner’s mostly-electrified keyboards, Tim LeFebvre’s in-the-pocket electric bass, and Mark Guiliana’s contemporary-minded beats. No one’s footprint on this album aside from McCaslin’s is larger than perhaps David Binney’s, though. A noted alto sax player, he left his horn at home to concentrate on contributing as producer, a role he’s played on McCaslin albums going back to 2003’s The Way Through, and what’s most interesting about this is that as McCaslin broke increasingly free from acoustic modern jazz and deeper into progressive contemporary jazz, he’s made this journey with Binney as his mainstay.

Binney’s familiarity with Donny McCaslin’s innate style (and also a kinship from being a fellow saxophonist, composer and leader) has made him the perfect partner for this evolution. If you listen closely enough, the song structures that combine the embraceable with the studied, the traditionally rooted with the forward-looking, were always there. The joyful, southern African chant of “No Eyes” or the quick drum ‘n’ bass frenzy of “54 Cymru Beats,” featuring the tenor master’s advanced technique attest to both the artist’s past and his future.

But in spite of the mission to bring jazz deeper into the 21st century, Donny McCaslin and Binney resist allowing all the modernity bleach the soul out of the music; in someone else hands, the circular “Love What Is Mortal” could have been a cold, nu-jazz tune but it’s plenty human and vibrant here instead. LeFebvre’s thrumming bass on “Underground City” competes with McCaslin as Guiliana has another drum ‘n’ bass thing going that syncs with the irregular note pattern. After another one of McCaslin’s episodic sax expeditions, Lindner undertakes an electric piano solo over exotic, colorful synth motifs.

And finally, Donny McCaslin brings his multi-faceted concept of music to dub; “Squeeze Thru” is another genre but still McCaslin’s signature style. That kind of explains his whole evolution as an artist, in a nutshell. McCaslin has long developed his own way of playing and composing, but he applies those ways into new — and increasingly contemporary — areas. The results tend to work out unforced and oftentimes, rather appealing. In this case, it consistently works out that way. Fast Future manages to be original, adventurous and engaging all at once, making this one of Donny McCaslin’s very best efforts to date.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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