Donny McCaslin ‘Beyond Now’ (Motéma) 4/5

donny-mccaslinTenorist Donny McCaslin is better known to a wider audience by virtue of being a member of the late David Bowie’s last band and the one that recorded the highly regarded, ‘Blackstar’. This very same group is present here, including drummer Mark Guiliana who has collaborated with Brad Mehldau, and the album, recorded just months after Bowie’s passing, has something of an experimental art rock feel with a jazz sensibility that fans of ‘Blackstar’ will warm too. Moreover, there are two reworkings of Bowie songs in homage, though as a whole this is very much a set of McCaslin originals, albeit with the influence of Bowie omnipresent in the eclectic approach.
The leader has in fact had an interesting career, debuting as far back as 1990 with an album produced by Gary Burton with whom McCaslin performed at the time. Then the tenorist joined Mike Mainieri’s Steps Ahead group and memorably recorded the ‘Vibe’ album in 1994, with a UK tour. By the early noughties, McCaslin was now on the Sunnyside label as well as part of Danilo Perez’s ‘Motherland’ project and Latin inflections were being subtly explored in his own compositions.

While there is not trace of that on the current project, McCaslin has been soaking up the collaborative 1970s work of Bowie and Brian Eno and this comes across on the sparsely instrumentation of ‘Waszawa’, with just keyboards and a combination of clarinet and tenor saxophone while Jeff Taylor is featured vocalist on the experimental sounding, ‘A small plot of land’, which has New Age style synthesizers. From a jazz perspective, some of the strongest numbers are the ballads with saxophone and the keyboards of Jason Linden in tandem on the gentle sounding, ‘Glory’.This is a more conventional jazz piece, though still with a contemporary styling. Lindner excels on the lengthy and melodic, ‘Bright Abyss’, which ends up sounding like a halfway house between Steps Ahead and Weather Report. In a funkier vein, the rapid drum beat of, ‘Shake loose’ makes for an interesting contrast and over which McCaslin wails sweetly. More rock than jazz, the austerely atmospheric, ‘Coelacanta’ was composed by Dedmau5 and the tenorist remains firmly in the background to the synthesizer.

Jazz purists may balk at this heady combining of arthouse rock with jazz, acoustic with electronic, but for those who persevere, this is likely to be an enjoyable voyage of discovery and one that long-time Bowie fans may feel at home with. McCaslin and band have been touring in the United States, but are currently on dates in Scandinavia with the London Jazz Festival firmly in their sights for a 15 November date. Expect a leader now in his fiftieth year eager to recount tales of life in New York where he is resident.

Tim Stenhouse