The venerable trio tradition has long been viewed as a proving ground for the talents of upcoming tenor saxophonists. Thrust into the spotlight with minimal accompaniment, the stripped-down setting provides microscopic attention to an improviser's melodic ingenuity, harmonic subtlety and sense of rhythm; free of harmonic restraints, there is no room for error.
His seventh release as a leader, Recommended Tools is tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin's first trio session, and his first recording for part-time employer, trumpeter Dave Douglas' Greenleaf Music. According to Douglas, "I asked Donny McCaslin to write and record the Great American Tenor Trio record, half jokingly. Well, he delivered, with a stunning set of music." On par with some of the best albums made in this format, this date offers ample proof of McCaslin's improvisational mettle.
His skills honed in collaboration with some of the most creative minds in the mainstream arena, McCaslin has proven himself to be a fearless inside/outside player, able to drift between stylistic realms with ease. Indicative of his talents, Gary Burton, Ken Schaphorst, Maria Schneider and Douglas have all employed McCaslin in their ensembles.
Bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Johnathan Blake form McCaslin's elastic rhythm section. A kindred spirit, Glawischnig's previous album, Panorama (Sunnyside, 2008) revealed a blend of intricate post bop and Latin traditions reminiscent of McCaslin's In Pursuit (Sunnyside, 2007). The bassist's stalwart phrasing and robust tone provide the trio with an unwavering bottom end. A relatively new face on the scene, Blake's playing is sure to turn headsespecially his melodic solos on "Eventual" and "Fast Brazil."
The spirited blues of the title track and the intensifying drama of "Eventual" set the stage for stunning feats of virtuosity from the leader as McCaslin uncoils spiraling sheets of sound. Glawischnig and Blake balance careful listening with nimble interplay, parrying the leader's circuitous salvos and setting up dynamic countermeasures that keep the structures in continuous flux.
A peerless virtuoso, McCaslin's fluid cadences avoid stock phrases to extrapolate emotionally charged variations from his distinctive melodies and unorthodox chord changes. His unaccompanied solo cadenza on "The Champion" is a testament to his creative prowess that displays a remarkable technique driven by a singular harmonic and thematic sensibility.
A thrilling session, the set brims with labyrinthine improvisations and turbulent interaction, such as the angular high-wire theatrics of "Excursion" and the rousing momentum of "2nd Hour Revisited," yet McCaslin and company also understand the value of restraint. "Late Night Gospel" revels in soulful Americana and "Margins of Solitude" offers edgy introspection, while a gorgeous rendition of Billy Strayhorn's sublime "Isfahan" unfolds with exotic lyricism.
A brilliant take on the hallowed tenor trio tradition, Recommended Tools is not only a high water mark for McCaslin, but one of the most beguiling records of the year.