The only thing predictable about Donny McCaslin's first ten albums was their unpredictability. Each new release arrived with a new line-up and not infrequently a new direction, often providing the perpetually curious saxophonist/composer with fertile new ground to explore.
On the surface, what makes McCaslin's latest release, Fast Future (available March 31, 2015 on Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Music), something of a radical departure from his usual M.O., is that it reprises the stunning electro-acoustic quartet from its groundbreaking, critically-acclaimed predecessor, Casting for Gravity - a project that earned McCaslin a 2014 GRAMMY® nomination for "Best Instrumental Jazz Solo" on the track "Stadium Jazz." However as the title implies, Fast Future finds McCaslin and company - keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana, along with longtime producer David Binney - hurtling further into the relatively unexplored crossroads between jazz and electronica with virtuosic musicianship. Long influenced by fusion pioneers like Weather Report and Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, McCaslin integrates those hybrid instincts with innovative modern artists like Aphex Twin and Skrillex.
"I really love the sonic textures and ambient vibe that you hear in a lot of that music," says McCaslin of the influence that electronica and EDM (Electronic Dance Music) has had on his music. "Having these guys improvising and interacting within that sonic landscape feels great."
At the core of even the most adventurous soundscapes on Fast Future - McCaslin's fourth album for Greenleaf and the first release during the company's 10th anniversary year - are similar sensibilities that have fueled McCaslin's acoustic music, namely vigorous melodies, taut interaction, and the leader's instantly recognizable, brawny tenor voice. Take "No Eyes," a cover of a song by Baths, the alter ego of L.A.-based electronica artist Will Wiesenfeld. Atop the electronic synth-bass throb sits a gorgeous, singable melody, which Binney enhances via transcendent wordless vocals (an element that was not previously highlighted on Casting for Gravity). "Sometimes in the electronica realm there's not enough harmonic movement or melody for me," McCaslin says. "But that song is a beautiful tune in and of itself and you could play it in a variety of ways." It is in this overall spirit that Fast Future showcases McCaslin in a slightly more commercial context, featuring production tendencies that are more often reserved for non-jazz projects. "Greenleaf has again provided an opportunity for me to experiment and that comes from the openness and sensibility of Dave Douglas," says McCaslin, who was a member of Douglas' quintet.
McCaslin is well known for his standout playing in the Maria Schneider Orchestra (having recently been featured on the David Bowie/Maria Schneider collaboration, "Sue") and Ryan Truesdell's Gil Evans Project, and he compares the feeling of playing amid lush electronic environments to soloing against those vivid big-band backdrops. "Standing and playing in front of this bed of beauty is such a joy," he says. "It's so awesome to be surrounded by such deep music."
The members of McCaslin's quartet have been incredibly busy in the two years since the release of Casting for Gravity. Lefebvre, already in-demand for Hollywood soundtrack work and subbing on Saturday Night Live, joined the Tedeschi Trucks Band, a touring juggernaut that has kept him almost constantly on the road. Lindner remains a commanding presence on the NYC jazz scene, leading his renowned band Now Vs Now and its large ensemble spin-off, Breeding Ground. Guiliana joined with pianist Brad Mehldau to form the electronic duo project Mehliana and founded the independent record label Beat Music Productions, which recently launched with the release of two of his own new projects.
All of those experiences converge when these individually inventive artists come together in McCaslin's quartet, now with multiple years of experience as a working unit. The saxophonist calls Lefebvre "the DJ of the band," the breadth of his stylistic and sonic range driving the band into different territories from one moment to the next. With his own background in production, drum and bass, and electronic music, Guiliana easily transcends the genre boundaries traversed by McCaslin's music and is so crucial to the band's sound that the bandleader has said, "this record is a drum solo." And McCaslin praises Lindner's "stylistic malleability," noting his gift at finding "these sounds that feel right and are edgy, but he's also able to be so in the moment and so organic."
Saxophonist, composer and producer Binney, McCaslin's longtime friend, collaborator, and basketball partner, is the fifth member of the quartet. Months before he sets foot in the studio for any project, McCaslin consults with Binney and the two shape a vision for his next project. "I can't overstate the significance of Dave's contribution to this record," McCaslin says. "It was a real partnership. He was never more of an influence on a record than he was on this one."
One example that McCaslin cites is the haunting spoken word interlude on "Love What is Mortal," performed by Jana Dagdagan, intertwined above McCaslin pristine soloing and treatment of melody. An integral component of the song's melancholy atmosphere, the dialogue was entirely Binney's idea, and he presented it complete and already edited into the track when McCaslin entered the studio one day. "I thought it was perfect," McCaslin says. "How lucky am I to have a friend like that?"
From the bombastic grooves of the title track, through the lustrous ballad "Midnight Light" and the frantic free-jazz mutation of Aphex Twin's "54 Cymru Beats," to the final dub-tinged stealth of closer "Squeeze Thru," which evokes McCaslin's youth in Santa Cruz, seeing reggae legends like Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Mighty Diamonds, and Burning Spear live, Fast Future offers a thrilling vision of the shape and redefinition of jazz to come.
Upcoming DONNY McCASLIN Performances:
All dates to feature the Donny McCaslin Group unless otherwise noted.
Personnel for each date varies.
January 29 - 31 / University of Mary (Guest w/ Univ. Big Band) / Bismarck, ND
February 12 / Regattabar / Cambridge, MA
February 15 / Darulbedayi Caddesi Harbiye Sisli
(w/ Maria Schneider Orchestra) / Istanbul, Turkey
February 20 - 21 / University of Wisconsin -
River Falls (Guest w/ Univ. Big Band) / River Falls, WI
March 7 / The Jazz Bakery / Los Angeles, CA
March 12 - 15 / Cuesta College / San Luis Obispo, CA
March 16 / El Cerrito High School (Guest w/ High School Jazz Band) / El Cerrito, CA
March 19 / Jazz en Rafale (Donny McCaslin Trio
w/ Scott Colley & Jonathan Blake) / Montreal, QC
March 25 - 28 / Mondavi Center / Davis, CA
April 1 / Humber College (Artist-in-Residence) / Toronto
April 3 / Kent State University (Guest Artist) / Kent, OH
April 7 - 8 / The Jazz Standard / New York, NY
April 12 - 18 / Jaazar Festivel (Guest Artist) / Aarua, Switzerland
April 21 - 25 / Reno Jazz Festival (Guest Artist) / Reno, NV
April 28 - May 3 / Village Vanguard (w/ Enrico Pieranunzi Group) / New York, NY
May 14 - 17 / Jazz Standard (w/ Gil Evans Project - CD Release / New York, NY
June 2 - 6 / Birdland (w/ Maria Schneider Orchestra) / New York, NY
July 18 / Kuumbwa Jazz Center / Santa Cruz, CA
July 19 / Stanford Jazz Workshop / Stanford, CA