Donny McCaslin Group debuts Bowie-inspired ‘Beyond Now’ at Jazz Alley


Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s appeared at Seattle’s premier Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley plenty of times — as a part of other major bands: Gary Burton’s, Antonio Sanchez’s Migration, Maria Schneider’s Orchestra, Kyle Eastwood, Danilo Pérez…

He returned with his own band for two full-bodied, jam-packed shows this past Tuesday and Wednesday, plucking bits and pieces from their new album, Beyond Now (Motéma Music), and the one that started it all — David Bowie’s final recording, the Grammy-winning Blackstar.

McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, and drummer Mark Guiliana had the privilege of recording with the rest of Bowie’s Blackstar band for a few short months in 2015, fusing elements of the late British rocker’s eclectic-electric soul music and other-worldly tenements, with jazz and EDM.

The experience so moved McCaslin that he sought to continue Bowie’s thread in Beyond Now with Lindner, Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre, vocalist/synth player David Binney, and Kneebody’s gnarly guitarist Nate Wood. Bowie’s spirit is all over this new record, sharing song credits with Brian Eno on “Warszawa” — which the McCaslin Group performed at Jazz Alley — and “A Small Plot of Land,” featuring Jeff Taylor on vocals.

Wood graced the Jazz Alley stage with the McCaslin Group on electric bass both nights, filling in his part (and then some) in large, broad strokes and upping the badass-funk vibe considerably on most of the open-ended, free jazz of the extended set. Wood also mixed/mastered McCaslin’s Beyond Now album.

The four on the floor dynamic mesmerized an equally eclectic, adventurous audience on the final night of the Jazz Alley performance. McCaslin invited each member of the group to do his thing on eight original and originally sounding, epic instrumentals that went on way past the four-minute mark.

By the time the eighth pseudo-encore came up, McCaslin took over, emptying his soul in a vortex of sound and fury, melody and play, solo and trade, riffing on gradually diminishing returns in an elaborate showcase of moody variation and versatile virtuoso.

McCaslin’s trademark is his effortless ability to assume the position of a jazz statesman — with a warm, melodic tone so strong and soaring as to melt your heart — then turn around in a flash and distort the melodic make-up like a mass-destructor.

Throughout the evening, he switched back and forth from melodic jazz to EDM mayhem, with the enabling efforts of his right-hand partner-in-crime, the keyboard wizard Jason Lindner — additionally, a stunning joy to behold in his hissy, glassy, shards-and-all jazz departures on piano.

Lindner applied his synth wizardry to set the right mood, dissolving music and structure into a chill, bleeding, no-rules interlude, perhaps to inspire McCaslin to broaden his EDM side.

On the sensational opening number, “Shake Loose,” originally titled, “So Angry” (long story), Lindner used his synth to shake up the circular curriculum descending into a vortex of light and dark.

McCaslin felt his way through the dark shadows of Lindner’s synth-driven impulses, fuzzy at first, his sax creaking and croaking to life.

Lindner dropped in the sound of a siren, prompting McCaslin and Wood to fly off the handle, driving a thunderously funky rhythm home, surging on a liquid line. It felt as if the band was slowly injecting the drowsy, stressed-out audience with incremental jolts of caffeine, or liquid Zen.

In the midst of Lindner’s hallucinogenic trip, McCaslin would slip his sax back into this strengthening, discernible groove before disintegrating into the chill mood again.

Midway into the show, McCaslin introduced a new, topical, composition he wrote, in response to Donald Trump’s controversial remarks that came out of the recent presidential election.

McCaslin talked about his divorced mother raising him and his sister — “[Trump’s] misogynistic message pissed me off… I can’t stand to hear women talked about that way,” and a brother-in-law from Mexico, having to hear that stuff about immigrants. “I’m not anti-conservative,” the tall, soft-spoken musician said, but added that he had a hard time dealing with some of the messages that seemed to alienate the marginalized.

He wrote “Beast,” “hoping the nation” would be more “tolerant.”

What he could not say with words, he poured into the music of “Beast.” Together McCaslin and his Group made mincemeat out of the music, looped in a pattern of recognizable gibberish. The musical gibberish replicated the sound one might hear after overdosing on the presidential elections, the campaign speeches, the political ads and commentary, the media double-speak — on interminable repeat, sped up until it fused into a noisy, obnoxious barrage of distortion.

The distortion lingered in batches until McCaslin cut through on his sax with a lyrically beautiful bit of melody, as Guiliana spilled over with the public’s rage in harrowing, uncontrollable stick-to-skin scatter shots that grew more assertively musical and less reactive.

The band also paid tribute to David Bowie by covering his song, “Lazarus” (from Blackstar) with a bit of McCaslin/Lindner free EDM jazz.

“He was remarkable,” McCaslin marveled. “His humanity was … so generous.” The saxophonist tried to touch Bowie’s vibrancy as a human being, beyond the legendary status in what felt like the ultimate, elongated melodic bridge. Keyboardist Lindner messaged the flight of Bowie’s multi-colored spirit with fireworks arching from his keyboard. By the song’s end, you could almost feel Bowie’s outstretched fingers from beyond the beyond, beyond now.

The McCaslin Group also reached back farther into his 2015 album, Fast Future, on the title track, featuring an incredible two-drum intro with bassist Nate Wood and Guiliana. At one point during the long session, Wood sat drumming with his right hand while power-fingering the bass with his left — in perfect, duo time.

The Jazz Alley show proved to be quite the David Bowie tribute, and satisfying introduction to some of the inspiring men behind the Blackstar music.

Portland! Looking forward to seeing you Friday night!

— Donny McCaslin (@DonnyMcCaslin) June 15, 2017 — Donny McCaslin (@DonnyMcCaslin) June 9, 2017

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