Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review: Casting for Gravity – Donny McCaslin

Donny McCaslin is a bit more established than our usual All Jazz Sax review subjects, but, sad to say, I’m pretty unfamiliar with his work.  So I thought I’d use McCaslin’s recently-released recording, Casting for Gravity, as an occasion for getting to know his playing a bit better.

The recording starts out with “Stadium Jazz,” McCaslin gently introducing the tune with a slow line, backed by synthesizer.  But this quickly gives way to an up-tempo groove.  This tune sounds like some of Michael Brecker’s later work, such as some of the things from Tales from the Hudson and Pilgrimage.   McCaslin displays the kind of control over the tenor sax that Brecker had, hyperfast articulation, strong sound in the lowest part of the horn, fluid in the altissimo.  There’s some nice drum work here from Mark Guilliana and some distorted synthesizer from Jason Linder.  I would also characterize this tune as the electric Return to Forever tempered by the warmth of McCaslin’s tenor sax.  The tune closes with synthesizers tuned to sound like voices, backing McCaslin while he plays the melody.  A strong start to the recording.
“Says Who” is an upper mid-tempo burner built on a series of brief, repeated phrases.  This tune reminds me of other electronic jazz projects that include a saxophonist, like Weather Report and saxophonist Bill Evans’s Petite Blonde.  McCaslin’s solo is full of ear-catching virtuoso patterns, and after his solo, Guilliana’s drumming is the focus.  Guilliana sounds like he internalized the drumming of Dennis Chambers on Petite Blonde.  But the cut overall is not very interesting.
“Losing Track of Daytime” slows things down.  This tune, with Linder on electric piano, is similar to the work of pop group Zero 7, like the pretty song “Home” from their When It Falls, except that it has a jarring bridge section that doesn’t really fit.  Linder plays a solo that doesn’t have much substance.  McCaslin aggressively solos over a rougher background, sounding great, firing off some impressive false fingering phrases and doing some altissimo screaming.  Electric bassist Tim Lefevbre plays well in the background.  This cut is pretty effective--Zero 7 with a world-class tenor saxophone soloist.  “Alpha and Omega,” starts out with some spacy playing from Linder on synthesizer and some electronically-echoed phrases from McCaslin; the synthesizer and saxophone phrases are repeated without break throughout the cut.  The variety in the tune is provided by interludes of high energy playing from Guilliana and Lefebvre and some synthesizer effects from Linder, but the tune doesn’t include any real improvised soloing.
“Tension” almost counts as up-tempo electronica, with a repetitious theme featuring McCaslin in unison with Linder on synthesizer, and as a tune it’s just not very interesting.  But McCaslin plays a good solo, full of variety.  Linder adds layers of synthesizer, and Guilliana continues his Dennis Chambers act.  “Praia Grande” is more compositionally interesting, approaching the quality of the work of David Binney, (such as the first cut on Barefooted Town, reviewed here).  McCaslin plays a very high-energy solo, and some voice-like synthesizer joins in near the end of the solo and the cut.
“Love Song for an Echo” is a mid-tempo tune that starts out with some quiet, spacy synthesizer, McCaslin then coming in with a gentle melody.  The tempo picks up a bit, and Linder comes in on acoustic piano.  Linder’s solo is pretty but underdeveloped; it kind of just meanders.  Then McCaslin solos, showing again what terrific control he has over the saxophone.  Then he returns to the tune’s gentle theme to close things out.  “Casting for Gravity” is an interesting, upper mid-tempo tune, Linder playing a nice synthesizer line in the background.  McCaslin plays a strong melody, but the cut ends up disappointing because it doesn’t include any real improvisation.
“Bend” has synthesizer and saxophone playing an elusive melody in conflict with an insistent bass line.  McCaslin plays another sleek solo, with the whole group in a very solid groove; everybody’s together on this one.  Linder plays a very good solo on synthesizer here and makes me wish he had more synthesizer solos on this recording.  The recording ends with “Henry,” a quieter tune with a pretty melody.  This tune has a nice, confident groove.  Linder plays a solid electric piano solo, Lefebvre laying down a cool background behind him, and McCaslin plays a laid-back, too-brief solo.  At this point, the last cut on the recording, the group seems truly relaxed and comfortable, like they finally found their groove.
Ultimately, Casting for Gravity is a bit disappointing.  For one thing, too many of the tunes are on the bland side.  For me, if you’re going to play this type of electronic, pop-oriented music (but without a vocalist and lyrics), you have to have strong tunes and do some pretty interesting compositional things within the tunes.  The thing is, the group achieves this high level a few times, like on “Praia Grande,” “Bend,” and “Henry.”  Also, as is evident on “Bend” and “Henry,” Linder is a good soloist, and he gets too few opportunities to shine on this recording.  If all the tunes on Casting for Gravity had the quality of “Bend” and “Henry,” and if the supporting players got more of a chance to stretch out (especially Linder), this would have been a superlative recording.  Having said this, Casting for Gravity is almost pulled into the superlative category just by virtue of McCaslin’s tenor saxophone playing.  His playing is so strong that, while listening to it, though late at night, I was tempted to grab my own tenor sax to do some practicing.  McCaslin may be the rightful heir to Michael Brecker’s legacy.  Those interested in jazz saxophone cannot afford to miss out on his playing.

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