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Donny McCaslin: Soar (2006)

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Donny McCaslin: Soar How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.

Tenor player Donny McCaslin aims high on Soar and rather gloriously hits all his targets with this ambitious set of pieces of a decidedly Central and South American bent.

McCaslin's other "new" record, Give and Go (Criss Cross), was released in February. The two CDs couldn't be more different, though—while Give and Go was a comparatively stripped-down quintet set recorded in one day, Soar is an almost glossy behemoth recorded over several sessions and very definitely produced by David Binney. McCaslin's tenor and flutes are supported by various combinations of guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Scott Colley, drummer Antonio Sanchez, percussionist Pernell Saturnino, pianist Orrin Evans and vocalist Luciana Souza. (Trumpeter Shane Endsley and trombonist Luis Bonilla add parts to two songs, most notably joining with the leader on wonderfully Bach-like contrapuntals in the tag to "Soar.")

The only songs not written by McCaslin are "Tanya and "Merjorana Tonosiena, the Panamanian folk songs that bookend the CD. The springy, percolating "Tanya acts as an effective introduction to the album; it begins with McCaslin's romping, but always focused tenor alongside Saturnino's percussion, before overdubbed McCaslins pull in Monder's acoustic guitar, extra percussion and Souza's decorative vocals.

McCaslin's own compositions are the really impressive ones, though. "Push Up the Sky has an almost overwhelmingly earnest, dramatically hopeful tenor theme that's (characteristically on this record) doubled by Souza's voice over surging, dynamic drums, percussion and dramatically placed, minimal piano. Here and elsewhere, there is no dearth of soloing from the leader, and he's playing magnificently with robust tone, vibrant imagination (you can almost hear him thinking ahead) and a Coltrane-like conviction that says "this moment is important, and these notes need to come out." But his writing's as good as his playing; and Sanchez's typically athletic kit work and Colley's lovely but carnivorous bass lines give the listener more to do than savor tenor solos.

Colley's particularly marvelous on "Be Love, an elegantly swaying piece built around a five-note bass vamp that's enlivened by a gorgeous McCaslin solo (you can apply that last phrase to describe most of the tunes) and a hotly liquid, acid-toned solo from Monder. It's not uncommon for an added percussionist to weigh down a kit drummer's swing, but here Sanchez and Saturnino shift and mutate the groove as one before they open up into simultaneous soloing against that bass vamp—now bolstered by Souza's voice—on the tag.

"Be Love, "Push Up the Sky, "Soar, and "Laid Bare are extended pieces. Their length, coupled with cynicism-free optimism (just glance at those titles) and epic yearning—plus sweetening touches like Souza's vocals and the hardly dry production values—could have led to disaster. Records like Soar are often toothlessly bland or annoyingly precious.

Soar is neither. It's very good. This is an important year for McCaslin.

Track Listing: Tanya; O Campeao; Push Up the Sky; Hero as a Boy; Be Love; Grafton; Soar; Laid Bare; Merjorana Tonosiena.

Personnel: Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, vocals; Luciana Souza: vocals (1-5,8); Ben Monder: guitar; Orrin Evans: piano (2-4,8); Scott Colley: bass (2-9); Antonio Sanchez: drums (2-9); Pernell Saturnino: percussion (1-3,5,7-9); Shane Endsley: trumpet (7,8); Luis Bonilla: trombone (7,8).

Record Label: Sunnyside Records

Style: Modern Jazz


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