Warmth ‘The Best of Don McCaslin’s Warmth’ (Tramp) 3/5

don-mccaslinThe jazz scene has always had a broad selection of contributors, from super successful legends to relatively unknown local heroes, with Don McCaslin falling into the later category. Quite an obscure character outside of his hometown and a handful of record collectors, but Santa Cruz musician Don McCaslin was the bandleader and keyboard player for Warmth, a group of mainly local musicians of whom this compilation focuses on.

The story goes that Don McCaslin and Warmth played outside a café in downtown Santa Cruz, California, from 1971 to 1989, which was next to the Cooper House building. Here, the band played a mixture of standards and original compositions and during this time they also recorded and released a number of albums in very limited numbers, mostly on their own Cooper House record label. These albums are quite rare and although they don’t have massive price tags on the collecting scene, they do command a reasonable £30–£50 each. It’s difficult to say how many of these albums were pressed, but this compilation from German label Tramp cherry picks from their discography of what may affectionately be called private press West Coast hippie jazz.

And as like the Warmth set list, this collection contains a mix of jazz standards and originals, with nine instrumental and nine vocals tracks, and the band themselves having a varied lineup over their duration that comprised keyboards, piano and vibes by McCaslin, electric and sometimes upright bass, saxophone, trumpet, drums, percussion and some very effective flute playing. Prominent saxophone player Donny McCaslin, son of Don, was a member of the band during the early stages of his career.

Warmth’s influences come mainly from 60s and 70s jazz and also Latin, with some of this Latin tinge evident in their version of ‘Poinciana’, which is based around flute and Rhodes electric piano. Other personal favourites include ‘Afro Blue’, with this version more akin to the Mongo Santamaria original than the more well-known Coltrane version with Don displaying some sharp vibraphone playing, and ‘On Green Dolphin Street’ with its again effective electric piano and flute meanderings.

The vocals are performed by a variety of male vocalists of differing aptitude, and while they never outclass Mark Murphy, they suit the styling of the band and the sound they deliver. The album does have an obvious West Coast feel and will appeal to fans of that sound. And while it never gets into the funkier side of jazz or the heavy jazz-fusion world, cuts such as ‘Praise Poem’ and ‘Simon Rodia’s Song’ let the drummer play much looser with Don’s electric piano playing always strong.

This compilation for me is as much a celebration of the underdog as it is about the music. With Warmth playing continually in Santa Cruz for decades, who’s to know the number of people or musicians that Don and this band would have influenced during that time.

Most jazz players will never get chance to play with Herbie or record an album for Blue Note, but we cannot ignore the majority of hard-working musicians like Don who continually entertain and enrich our lives for the better.

Damian Wilkes

[UPDATE: Feature from Santa Cruz Sentinel 2016 kindly sent in by a reader]