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Donny McCaslin: Give and Go

John Kelman By

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If there's one label that's committed to defining the new mainstream, it's Criss Cross Jazz. Earlier recordings on Gerry Teekens' label weighed more heavily towards the standards repertoire, but recent releases by artists like guitarist Adam Rogers, trumpeter Alex Sipiagin and pianist Edward Simon have applied a more contemporary spin on acoustic jazz through a greater focus on original material. This writing, while rooted in tradition, often incorporates more complex and modernistic harmonic and rhythmic conceits, moving mainstream jazz into the 21st Century.

Add saxophonist Donny McCaslin and Give and Go to that list. Since arriving in New York in the early 1990s, McCaslin has become an increasingly in-demand player, as comfortable in Maria Schneider's large ensemble as in the more experimental Lan Xang, a collective with alto saxophonist David Binney—who coincidentally produced the Latin American-inflected Soar (Sunnyside, 2006), McCaslin's second disc this year. McCaslin also replaced Chris Potter in Dave Douglas' quintet and appeared on the trumpeter's Meaning & Mystery (Greenleaf, 2006), so this may well McCaslin's year to leap into the spotlight.

As different as these three records are, McCaslin links them with his fiery yet never over-the-top playing. His softspoken personality is almost paradoxical to passionate solos like the one on "Outlaw. The descending four-chord pattern at the core of the tune has a Metheny-like vibe, but with trumpeter John Swana hovering around McCaslin's theme and guitarist Steve Cardenas' accompaniment—warm like Metheny, but somehow more sharply defined—it's but a passing reference.

McCaslin's exposure to broad musical opportunities informs his writing. The staggered rhythm of "Scrappy may be the foundation for a quirky Monk-like unison theme from McCaslin and Swana, but bassist Scott Colley and drummer Gene Jackson manage to make it swing, almost in spite of itself. McCaslin's solo builds with inexorable logic, using broad intervallic leaps and understated power to gradually boost its intensity. "Drift, on the other hand, is a more tempered piece, although Jackson's rubato-like elasticity lends its gentler veneer a constant sense of tension and release.

If this is McCaslin's year for greater exposure, Cardenas' playing on Give and Go ought to place him in higher definition as well. His accompaniment is supportive yet suggestive, while his solos combine a Frisell-like angularity with a stronger mainstream focus. Nowhere is this more evident than on the title track, where his solo—beginning as a duet with Jackson—blends smooth legato lines and fluid arpeggios, becoming even more outré when Colley joins in. Clearly, Cardenas is a guitarist to watch, along with Kurt Rosenwinkel, Adam Rogers and Ben Monder.

The greatest difference between Give and Go and Soar is the former's more impromptu nature. Soar demonstrates McCaslin's more orchestral side, while Give and Go is a purer blowing session. Still, McCaslin's adventurous compositions and well-constructed yet evocative playing—mirrored by the rest of the quintet—make it both a unique and logical entry in his growing discography.


Track Listing: Outlaw; Scrappy; Drift; Give and Go; The Liberator's Song; Two/Three; Doom Fuss; Eronel.

Personnel: Donny McCaslin: tenor and soprano saxophones; John Swana: trumpet; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Scott Colley: bass; Gene Jackson: drums.

Title: Give And Go | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Criss Cross

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