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November 2008

Donny McCaslin Trio
Recommended Tools
Greenleaf Music

If you’re a saxophonist making an album with just a bassist and a drummer, you need to be on from start to finish, you’d better have a lot to say, and you’d be wise to make sure your sidemen are up to the task. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin goes three-for-three on those counts with Recommended Tools.

With a tough, taut tone, McCaslin tears into nine originals and Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan.” McCaslin’s approach is melodic, but he plays with a fiery touch. This is his first recording in a trio setting, and his playing feels freer than in the past. For one thing, the absence of chords on several tunes is noticeable. Or if he did compose some of the songs with chords in mind, they’re hidden beneath his simple lines and the sparse strumming of bassist Hans Glawischnig.

It is the interdependent nature of the trio that makes this all work so well. How else could such sparse treatment of “Isfahan” succeed so well? We can only imagine those familiar supportive horns of Duke Ellington’s orchestra, yet this arrangement sounds complete on its own. Elsewhere, drummer Johnathan Blake nearly steals the spotlight with his voluminous flow of rhythm. His free-for-all solo on “2nd Hour Revisited” manages to evoke Buddy Rich, Paul Lytton and Animal from The Muppet Show.

McCaslin’s blowing may be brawny, but it is equally thoughtful. Ascending and descending phrases transform into great swirls of sound on the title track. “Late Night Gospel,” a ballad with an occasional rock pulse, builds to its climax on McCaslin’s anguished cries and shrieks. “The Champion,” a tribute to Brazilian musician Hermeto Pascoal, begins and ends with the head, and in between are several minutes of McCaslin soloing unaccompanied. His work is blistering and beautiful, sometimes in the same moment.

Originally published in November 2008
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