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Donny McCaslin: Perpetual Motion

Dan McClenaghan By

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Saxophonist Donny McCaslin can be called, quite accurately, a fearless player, whether it's for his prodigious and always adventurous work as a sideman—very notably with trumpeter Dave Douglas' quintet and with Maria Schneider's award-winning orchestra (for which he garnered a Grammy nomination), or on his own discs as a leader.

McCaslin's musical spirit is a searching one, exploring different facets of his artistry on the pared-down and often fiery trio outing, Recommended Tools (Greenleaf Records, 2008); going after the Latin flavorings on In Pursuit (Sunnyside Records, 2007); applying an expanded palette on Declaration (Sunnyside Records, 2010); and now charging headlong into modernity with Perpetual Motion.

This is McCaslin's funkiest recording, due, in part, to the addition of Tim Lefebvre's in-the-groove electric bass work in conjunction with the piano/Fender Rhodes sounds of Adam Benjamin on eight of the ten tracks, and Uri Caine on the rest. Where most small groups going with the Fender Rhodes end up sounding like weak imitations of Miles Davis' second great quintet from the mid-sixties, McCaslin and company take things on a spacier and very original journey, thanks to the use of deftly added electronics, supplied by the set's producer, alto saxophonist and electro-whiz David Binney.

The five-minute opener, "Five Hands Down," sizzles, though much of what McCaslin does sizzles. His sax broils away any thought of clichés in front of Benjamin's chiming Fender Rhodes, and the rolling boil turbulence of Lefebvre and drummer and Antonio Sanchez, who shares the drum chair with Mark Giuliana. It sets the tone for a high heat, high energy musical experience.

The twelve-minute title tune taken, back-to-back, with the eleven-minute "Claire" (for McCaslin's daughter) pushes things into the tour de force zone, with "Perpetual Motion" slipping into an extended trio interlude—trudging bass/drums anchoring a screaming saxophone, leading into a singing electric piano solo over a lighter rhythm—and "Claire" possessing the frenetic and joyful energy level of a headstrong toddler.

On the idea of energy, "Energy Generation" might be a fitting theme for the entire disc. The song blasts out of the speakers in trio mode, muscular bass and drums meshing with free-flying saxophone, before gelling into a sparkling groove with the addition of electric piano. It's definitely funky, with some of the eeriest and most overt electronics of the set.

The disc closes on a beautifully tender note, with Caine's a capella reading of McCaslin's "For Someone"; clearly about someone beloved.

Perpetual Motion turns a new page in Donny McCaslin's artistry. It's the same saxophone sound—full of intensity and free of the clichés, but this time surrounded by a more electric, modern-leaning and often soulful group dynamic.

Track Listing: Five Hands Down; Perpetual Motion; Claire; Firefly; Energy Generation; Memphis Redux; L.Z.C.M.; East Bay Grit; Impossible Machine; For Someone.

Personnel: Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Adam Benjamin: Fender Rhodes; Uri Caine: piano; Tim LeFebvre: electric bass; Antonio Sanchez: drums.

Title: Perpetual Motion | Year Released: 2011 | Record Label: Greenleaf Music

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