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Donny McCaslin

Lazaro Vega

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Who breaks singles of instrumental music on Entertainment Weekly and Rolling Stone? Donny McCaslin.  Since saxophonist Donny McCaslin's band became "David Bowie's last band" for the album "Blackstar," McCaslin recorded and released "Beyond Now" in 2016 and played 80 concerts all over the world since. Jazz From Blue Lake features McCaslin's music in the first part of each hour found here: www.bluelake.org/ondemand


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Coincidentally, I watched this on Roku last night and liked it more than my rational brain was telling me I should.

The guy pretty much lays the "same" solo every time out, but it's a good solo, and I really really like the way the band plays as a unit. Check out the drum kit. Bass/snare, no toms. Two cymbals + hi-hat. Sunny Murray-ish reductionist drum kit, almost. Anybody who wants to think of this as rehashed fusion, yeah, I can see that, but again, look at that drum kit and build out the esthetic from there, see if that gets you right back to fusion, even of a Steve Grossman/Stone Alliance type thing. Maybe, but not really.

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Hey, I "discovered" Donny when he was a freshman at Berklee in 1986. Was there to do a story on Berklee and the NEC, walked by Phil Wilson's classroom and heard Donny and drummer Ben Perowsky playing their asses off. We all talked at length over lunch and later that day, when interviewing then Berklee dean Gary Burton I told him about Donny, who at the time  Gary knew not of (big place, lots of students, Donny was just a freshman). Two years later, Gary's group came to town with Donny on tenor. Since then I've heard Donny live a few times and bought a good many of his records. 

Agree about how the band plays as a unit, but even with the quote marks I don't think that "Donny pretty much plays the 'same' solo every time out." For one thing, within each solo there's too much interesting activity afoot for them be the same.


P.S. Donny's dad was a Southern California jazz vibist. From an early age, Donny was taken to gigs in lieu of a being babysat (I think there was a divorce involved there) and plunked down on the stand. Information clearly was absorbed.

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3 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

Agree about how the band plays as a unit, but even with the quote marks I don't think that "Donny pretty much plays the 'same' solo every time out." For one thing, within each solo there's too much interesting activity afoot for them be the same.

Didn't mean it as any kind of a diminshment (one can say the same thing(s) about, say, Booker Ervin, Sonny Stitts, a.o.), theres always the chromatic things, there's always the same contours done with them, so I stand by that part of it. But like Chuck famously (to me, any way) once said about Booker Ervin,, he's important not for what he plays, but how he plays it (syntax quite possibly paraphrased, idea not). People used to give Joe Henderson that same tag, but I never really bit on that. But...on some of Joe's "lesser" records, you can hear chromatic symmetries being used as connection devices, and...that's ok. IMO.

I first heard McCaslin on a Monday Michiru record, and was totally mesmerized how perfectly he played over a totally electronic beat "system", a freaking perfect symbiosis. Then I heard on some other dates playing more traditional forms and was...less enthralled. But this stuff, this whole "let somebody else play bebop, extended or otherwise". vibe of his (when he does it), it just feels right to me, and I'll go with that right until it starts feeling wrong. The dude played a variant of that "same solo" on one of the Ryan Truesdell/Cil Evans records, and even as I heard what it was, even more I heard how it was, and it sure felt right. Again.

The solo with Monday was on "The Right Time" off of Routes, and all I can find on You Tube is remixes, where there's a lot of chopping involved, which works, but the original cut, that was one of, perhaps the first Monday album I heard, and that cut just made my jaw drop.

otoh, the very "sameness" of his solos make them perfectly choppable, which in these days and times is in no way a liability, imo. It shows, perhaps, a convergence of macro-mindsets from different starting points. Of such things is cultural evolution made? to that end, refer back to that drummer not needing a bigass muti-rack drumset. Things are happening, and what ws that you said about history is happening now, it's happening to us? Is that close enough for jazzbulletinboard?

Here's the most expansive remix,of the question. It is nothing like the original cut, but the bits of McCaslin's solo that they use are choice. And yeah, I lke this kind of thing anyway, when it's done like this. But the original is just...visionary.


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I have to admit that McCaslin is bit of a puzzle to me.  (But -- confession - I haven't heard many of his leader-dates yet, something I'll surely get around to one of these days -- and I'm streaming his latest album here at work, now, as I'm typing this.)

His approach (and his tone) is nothing like the tenor-players I like best.  I was initially, not so much "put-off" by his playing on David Bowie's Blackstar album, as I was just intrigued that here was an "inside/outside" approach -- something that (in the abstract), I really espouse and love.  And yet, his particular language seemed entirely foreign to me.  Of course, after 10-20 spins of Blackstar, I absolutely fell deeply in love with the album (in general), and 30-40 more spins later, I also love McCaslin's playing on the album (which I now think is incredibly beautiful).

THAT SAID, his approach is not a style I'm instantly drawn to (or at least not yet).  I heard the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra several months ago, here in DC (first time hearing them live), and best as I'm recalling, a LOT of the reed-players had an approach not entirely unlike McCaslin's (or maybe my ears aren't discerning enough to say how their approaches differed a lot).

Maybe there's an inner logic to his style that gets better with repeated exposure.  I seem to remember spinning (streaming) a couple of his more recent albums ~8 months ago, and my initial reaction was either ambivalence, or puzzlement.  But now, as I'm typing this and spinning his 2015 album Fast Future, I'm connecting better with it than anything I'd tried last year.  Maybe all the repeated exposure to Blackstar (along with Maria Schneider's most recent CD), is also getting his sound in my head.

There's a simplicity to his approach, that's very melodic, and chromatic - but one that isn't afraid to bend damn near every note a bit.  And his sense of time is elastic, to put it mildly - but his attack isn't especially hard-edged either.  All just a very different approach than what I'm more used to.

He's playing here in the DC-area (at UMD) in December, and I'm pretty sure I'll end up going (though it's a pain in the ass, cuz I probably need to rent a zip-car to get there).

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  • 4 weeks later...

Well, David Baerwald's lyrics nailed a mood, for sure -- McCaslin and Craig Taborn do, too. Can't play the vocal version of K.C. Blues, which is called "So Long," sung by Jeffrey Wright. But the writer finds a voice inside Bird. Might not be Bird's voice, but it's a convincing character. You know the last bit of theme on KC Blues...he gives it the line, "....you ain't gonna hurt me no more." There's this, too, "such a dynamite little city.....to be from." Goodness. I can't play it on the radio because it builds up to "fuck yoooouuuu Kansas City."  "Moose the Mooche" is so right on. This guy dives into drug addiction from a hipster point of view, but it's not one of like "being hip," but just jaded, lost, above it yet consumed by it, and the singers, mostly, get it. Kurt Elling sure does. And so does this Jeffrey Wright. No, it's really something. Eerie. Uncomfortable. Welcoming. It may be a one off, but it's not a tourist point of view. Parts of this record crawl

 under your skin. 

Edited by Lazaro Vega
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  • 1 year later...
  • 7 months later...

Heard The Passion of Charlie Parker on a long flight home - was intrigued because at the time there was no information available about who was playing ... but played it right through anyway and I was, well, perplexed but basically found it interesting and, dare I say it, moving. Unlike JSngry, I find rhythm sections who continually fool with time irritating in the extreme - and here so often they almost seemed to have something going (swinging in 4/4) which could have pushed the tenor (McCaslin)  into something significant, only to quickly drop it for something else - and the tenor responded accordingly and the opportunity was missed.               But, McCaslin is a hell of a player who is all over the horn - a lot of legato chromatic playing - he sounds like Warne Marsh in the upper register and has a remarkable tone - almost phosphorescent (?) which greatly adds to the overall atmosphere. Rhythmically he has it covered but occasionally breaks up his flow with corny marching band type nonsense. The vocals/ vocal passages are very hip and perhaps capture something of Bird's scene. I dislike fusion intensely but this is not that simplistic. It's a unique workout on Bird's tunes and lifestyle that manages to capture something pretty profound - for all the wrong reasons (from my viewpoint).:blink: 


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  • 4 years later...

To the Members of the Voting Academy





Donny McCaslin's





"...'thrillingly charged' stretched the definition of jazz."

- Uncut Magazine


"McCaslin on I Want More perhaps comes closest to discovering a new world of sound that’s distinct from the one he helped create on [Bowie's] Blackstar." - Jazzwise


"Strap yourself in and get lost in this daring soundscape. If this is the future of jazz, we may not yet be prepared, but McCaslin and crew aren't wasting time with baby steps."

- Glide Magazine


"...a visionary program of original compositions" - Jazziz


“...most mind-blowing tenor sax solo I’ve seen someone do.” - Variety



Best Jazz Performance

Donny McCaslin

“Turbo” from the album I Want More



Best Alternative Jazz Album

Donny McCaslin – I Want More



Best Instrumental Composition 

“Stria” by Donny McCaslin – from the album 

I Want More


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