Uncharted Territory: Donny McCaslin Sets a New Course for His Music

Most jazz musicians make stylistic changes in careful increments — if they change at all. Not Donny McCaslin. Around 2010, the saxophonist began incorporating elements of electronica into his sound after listening to artists like Skrillex and Squarepusher. Four years later, the floodgates opened. That’s when legendary rock chameleon David Bowie, at the behest of his friend Maria Schneider, dropped by The 55 Bar in New York City, soaked up McCaslin’s live set and then recruited the saxophonist and his band to play on his final album, the highly lauded Blackstar.

The experience could’ve been a one-off that did little more than confer upon McCaslin a degree of crossover cred. Instead it profoundly altered his art and, further, recast his overall aesthetic outlook. “I saw him personify fearlessness, the total commitment to realizing his vision,” McCaslin says of Bowie, who was ill with liver cancer during the sessions and died in January 2016, two days after Blackstar’s release. “Those are things I’d striven for for years, but to see him embody those principles during Blackstar was incredibly affirming to me. It made me feel that anything is possible artistically.”

That sense of boundless possibility manifests itself on McCaslin’s latest album, Blow (Motéma) — an hour-long, 11-track slab of loud and busy progressive music that’s unrecognizable as a jazz record. Along with his regular rhythm section — drummer Mark Guiliana, keyboardist Jason Linder and bassist Tim Lefebvre — and select guest musicians, McCaslin worked with lyricists/singers Ryan Dahle and Jeff Taylor from the indie-rock realm to craft the album’s eight vocal tunes. They range from “Club Kidd,” which sounds like an outtake from Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, to the jittery electro-punk of “Tempest” to the glacial R&B ballad “Eye of the Beholder,” sung by longtime Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey.

Steve Wall’s thick production vibrates with an urban intensity that packs controlled chaos into structured songs. McCaslin, the articulate jazz improviser, is MIA. He uses his instrument, heavily doctored with electronic effects, to layer foundations and add bold color. His solos forgo harmonic fluidity, and instead deliver unbridled blasts of sonic adventurism, often punctuated by screaming crescendos.

While McCaslin says he’s “all the way in” with his current direction, he recognizes the risks of distancing himself so decidedly from jazz. But, he says, “As an artist, the reason I do this is to put it all on the line. I’m trying to live certain moments of discomfort and anxiety in this process. I’m committed to seeing this through because I believe in it. Besides, this is progressive, serious music, and I think that those aesthetics are in line with jazz aesthetics.” —Eric Snider

Photos by Jimmy Fontaine.

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