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Donny McCaslin: The Way Through

Since the early ’90s tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin has been a member of a loose collective of talented and creative young artists on the cutting edge that includes alto saxophonist Dave Binney, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Kenny Wollesen. They previously documented their genre-busting chemistry on CD under the name Lan Xang. Along with pushing the envelope in that more experimental context, McCaslin has also been a potent and reliable sideman in far more inside situations for such bandleaders as vocalist Luciana Souza and the Maria Schneider Orchestra. On The Way Through, his third CD as a leader, McCaslin blends his inside and outside sensibilities into one sumptuous and satisfying package.

McCaslin makes judicious use of alto flute, bass clarinet, marimba and steel pan alongside his signature tenor-alto blend with Binney, and the arrangements are quite adventurous. The music runs the gamut from forcefully swinging free-bop romps (“Break Tune”) to pan-global exoticism (“San Lorenzo”) to gentle lyricism (“The Way Through”) to the kind of spacious kind of freewheeling improv pieces that Lan Xang favored in performance and on its recordings (“What Remains”). Drummer Adam Cruz, clarinetist Douglas Yates, flutist Anders Bostrom and Souza further assist McCaslin in this excellent outing.

From the opening original, “Skyward,” McCaslin demonstrates an impressive command of his horn, leaping from honking lows to squealing highs with relative ease while maintaining a swinging pulse. His startling, unaccompanied extrapolation on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘n’ You” further demonstrates his eagerness to push the envelope with daring Brecker-esque intervallic leaps on his tenor while still acknowledging the tradition. Likewise, his sparse tenor-bass-drums trio rendition of Sammy Cahn’s “I Should Care” is simultaneously unorthodox and reverential.

Souza adds a haunting quality with her ethereal unison lines alongside McCaslin’s tenor on the churning Afro-Cuban undercurrent of “San Lorenzo” before chiming in with a robust overdubbed choir. The full ensemble turns in a relaxed, faithful reading of Wayne Shorter’s “Fee Fi Fo Fum,” which features dissonant harmonies for alto flute and bass clarinet. And McCaslin lets his experimental tendencies run wild on two provocative cat-and-mouse improv duets with Binney (“Free California” and “Flutter”) and on “Break Tune,” where he blows freely over some techno loops.

In touching all of these bases, McCaslin has put together his most fully realized project to date. The Way Through represents a complete picture of this talented, up-and-coming saxophonist-arranger-composer, with promises of even grander schemes to come.

Originally Published