Fragments of albums, stitched together by a great band.
Donny McCaslin is a protean tenor saxophonist, a player with beastly chops and a bright tone. He played in the Dave Douglas Quintet for a period of time and quickly became a leader, putting out the kind of modern jazz that was part contemporary fusion, part complex new jazz, with does of electronica and ambient music around the fringes. Whatever you wanted to call it, it was juiced with energy.
When McCaslin’s working band—with Ben Monder on guitar, Mark Guiliana’s drums, Jason Lindner’s keys and bass from Tim Lefebvre—got picked up by David Bowie to back him for Black Star, which turned out to be the rock star’s final recording, the band picked up additional weight and possibility. Folks were paying attention in a new way. Opportunities were afoot. The new album and McCaslin’s shot at that opportunity is called Blow.
Blow would seem to be McCaslin and his band looking to find a new direction but on a Black Star tip. This is not just another modern jazz record by a band suddenly acclaimed outside the jazz world. Rather, it is a recording of new songs—mostly with prominent vocals and lyrics—played in a style significantly beyond what we think of as “jazz”. Not that the players are dumbing anything down. Rather, McCaslin has chosen a few younger rock artists with whom to collaborate, co-composing songs and then threading them with some instrumental improvisations that weave the whole together.
This is an album of knotty compositions layered with tricky parts and bottom-moving funk-rock rhythms. It shouldn’t matter what we call it, what style or label contains it or explains it. But sometimes a hybrid piece of art doesn’t fit into any boxes because it is straining to know what it wants to be.
Four of the defining tunes on Blow were co-written by McCaslin and Canadian indie-rocker Ryan Dahle (Age of Electric, Limblifter) and feature driving arrangements with pulsing drums parts and walls of overdubbed saxophone parts that push forward a sense of insistence. Dahle’s vocals are processed and chorused, giving them a slightly metallic, artificial punch. The lyrics and melodies—in their arch abstraction and off-beat quality—have something in common with the power-pop of Carl Newman and The New Pornographers (in which band Dahle’s brother and bandmate Kurt Dahle played for five years). The material is catchy but cold. “Club Kidd” has a cool, broken-down verse that alternates vocal phrases with repeated saxophone notes or funk bounces, for example, before the the whole band explodes into a soaring chorus. “New Kindness” is a subtler kind of groover with lyrics that make Steely Dan sound straightforward: “This concrete is poured, we might have a minute, we might an hour, a day or more / Now we’re post-electricity, no memory, no data survives / These first photographs of the pyramids in an iron mountaintop secure detailed archive / But nothing like that can survive”. It is cool, evocative music, however, with a pulse suggesting how the past survives into the future, building in cool textures that are significantly created by how McCaslin’s saxophones (or flutes or clarinet), in layers, orchestrate the song.
Jeff Taylor, a New York-based indie-rocker, is featured on two songs. “Tiny Kingdom” is animated by drumming from Mark Guiliana (with whom Taylor has worked, independently) that is so tight it could raise the dead. Taylor’s singing is set in a perfect unison with the tenor saxophone, and then when Taylor jumps to his falsetto, eerie octaves. Linder’s synthesizer play a critical role here, coloring the piece beautifully. It’s a strong exercise in texture as well as groove. Taylor and McCaslin’s “Tempest” is a wilder thing, with the singer snarling a scary self-description over a savage accompaniment for just over a minute.
The collaboration with singer Gail Ann Dorsey (bassist and singer in Bowie’s band for over a decade) is a less frenetic dose of slow funk and soul. The analogue for this track has been heard frequently before—it could almost be a track from an older MeShell Ndegeocello album. Similarly, “The Opener” is a less over-the-top arrangement that features Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon) in a story-song that has him talk/singing over a rubbery Nate Wood (bass)/Zach Danzinger (drums) funk workout. These more conventional tracks align with the others because the sound of band ties them together. The band, whatever it is playing, is dreamy.
Oddly, then, the tracks that “don’t fit” are the instrumental tracks you might have heard on an older McCaslin band record. “Exactlyfourminutesofimprovisedmusic” is a purely instrumental workout that uses a repeated synthesizer sequence and a driving 32nd-note rock beat to let McCaslin honk and futz around in a fun, textured way. As a composition, well, it’s just a jam. And as a jam, it not all that inventive. “Beast” is the gentlest track on Blow, with McCaslin’s woodwinds cushioning the tenor sax melody before Guiliana kicks in with his killer groove. Still, as tasty as it is it, compared to rest of Blow it seems to be lacking a center. The synth-edged saxophone cadenza in the center doesn’t really do itself any favors. “Break the Bond” could be a movie theme with its slow build-up to an increasingly heroic-sounding melody. By the end, you can see your hero rescuing his daughter at the top of a mountain or something. But it would seem to part of a different project altogether.
Blow, then, winds up being three or four fragments of albums, stitched together by a great band and an interesting idea. What if the finest contemporary jazz players collaborated with artists of all/various kinds to demonstrate what that kind of musical firepower can do for a range of musical ideas? The result is impressive but uneven and highly dependent on your taste for each individual collaborator. Who is Donny McCaslin other than someone looking for a way out of the “jazz” box that all saxophonists (or their wallets) must dread?