Donny McCaslin: Casting for Gravity

Donny McCaslin always comes across as a tenor saxophonist with a strong musical personality that he uses to push himself into creative situations. For his 10th album as a leader, he absorbed influence from two electronica acts, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. The quality McCaslin hoped to appropriate from them related to the way textural backdrops can combine with straightforward melodic elements. With keyboardist Jason Lindner, drummer Mark Guiliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre, all musicians with electro-groove experience, McCaslin has an empathetic quartet.

To anyone not hip to the artists referenced above, Casting for Gravity will sound like an excursion into modern fusion, where atmosphere often becomes the prime focus. While the best examples of this style actually do fuse jazz and rock elements in an intense manner, the music can often fall victim to showcasing the players’ chops over trite, ad nauseam riffing. That happens on several tracks in which McCaslin blows one- or two-note melodies that grate after a few repetitions. A cover of Boards of Canada’s “Alpha and Omega” is little more than a Philip Glass-like sax line with an off-kilter countermelody from Lindner.

But McCaslin saves the album from completely digressing into mere riffs-and-ambience because he leaves himself a good deal of blowing room. “Tension” and “Stadium Jazz,” with their askew yet heavy grooves, are essentially launching pads for his muscular tenor. And the yearning “Praia Grande,” written by producer David Binney, is an ideal commingling of atmosphere, melody and improvisation.