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Donny McCaslin: Fast Future

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For quite a few years now, Donny McCaslin has slowly but surely been cajoling straight-ahead jazz fans into his idiosyncratic redefinition of fusion. A tenor saxophonist whose brawny tone and acrobatic phrasing recall mainstream masters like Michael Brecker, Joe Lovano and Chris Potter, McCaslin was cross-pollinating hard bop and prog-rock as far back as “Rock Me,” from his Declaration disc of 2009. A year later he added throbbing electric bassist Tim Lefebvre and dynamo drummer Mark Guiliana for Perpetual Motion, then achieved maximum energy in his vision by folding in keyboardist Jason Lindner on Casting for Gravity in 2012.

Fast Future retains the same ensemble (a rarity for McCaslin) but further challenges accepted genre boundaries with more extensive use of electronic dance music, or EDM. There are plush textures courtesy of Lindner and the additional synthesizers and wordless vocals from longtime producer-collaborator David Binney. McCaslin likens this sonic featherbedding to the lush surroundings when he solos in big bands such as the Maria Schneider Orchestra and Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project. But Fast Future doesn’t feel like postmodern big-band music, nor like the Headhunters and Weather Report comparisons suggested in the press notes (some of Joe Zawinul’s solo projects come closer). It boasts some of the breakneck razzle-dazzle of Casting for Gravity but more often phases into electronic mixes that can be dense and edgy or settle back into chilled-out lounge mode.

The lodestone for jazz fans is the creative eloquence and passion of McCaslin’s tenor. It’s revealing that he covers “54 Cymru Beats” by his formative influence on this EDM path, Richard D. James, a.k.a. Aphex Twin, but transforms the abrasive industrial drum ‘n’ bass of the Aphex original into a short but torrid foray into “outside” jazz. Whether he is bouncing off Lefebvre’s rubbery bass on the opening title track or delving into reggae-dub on the closer, “Squeeze Thru,” his unpredictable, improvisational turns of phrase, tempo and intensity are the beacon that both rivets and reassures.

Originally Published