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The Donny McCaslin Group at The Arden Gild Hall

Mike Jacobs By

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The Donny McCaslin Group
Arden Gild Hall
Arden, Delaware
January 14, 2017

Arden Delaware isn't exactly known as a jazz mecca but, with the coming of the Donny McCaslin Group to the Arden Gild Hall, it became one—for a little while at least. And in the best jazz traditions, the show presented in Arden had all of the elements you would expect from one of those meccas—innovation, exploration, technical excellence and passion—presented by players in the vanguard.

But, as was evidenced from the scorching opening tune, this was not to be a night of "your father's jazz." Propelled by a post-modern rhythmic onslaught, McCaslin's passionate salvos certainly bore the hallmarks of a player well versed in the work of his musical forbears, but their aim was dead set on the future. Doubly appropriate then that this tour supports an album entitled Beyond Now, which is equal parts forward-thinking, boundary-blurring juggernaut and an epilogue of sorts for the lasting inspirations from his work on David Bowie's rightfully-celebrated, final album, Blackstar. (See more on the Bowie / McCaslin / Blackstar relationship here.)

But make no mistake, apart from it being an artful finale, a major reason for Blackstar's being celebrated IS Bowie's tapping of McCaslin and group. The path being blazed on their past few albums was the very thing that attracted Bowie to want to work with them in the first place and, at this evening's show, Bowie's judgement never seemed more sound.

McCaslin's impassioned and technically mesmerizing soloing on the opening "Shake Loose" and the subsequent "Beyond Now" might have reminded some in attendance why early in his career, he was asked to succeed Michael Brecker in the seminal group Steps Ahead. Tunes like the gorgeous "Glory" not only displayed McCaslin's maturity as a composer but his shrewdness as a bandleader (in not only allowing his players the freedom to expand within his vision but also surrounding himself with the right players).

To Arden, McCaslin brought with him keyboardist Jason Lindner (Blackstar, Now vs. Now), drummer Nate Wood (Kneebody), and bassist Jonathan Maron (Groove Collective). Though portions of this tour included the full Blackstar / Beyond Now band, (with Tim Lefebvre on bass and Mark Guiliana on drums), Wood and Maron are equally brilliant players in their own right and have been the alternate rhythm section for many dates. Those familiar with their names, felt no disappointment in their substitution. For the unacquainted, it was soon made plain how their talents immeasurably elevated the proceedings and quelled any possible distress at the absence of Lefebvre and Guiliana.

Indeed, in either case, you would be hard-pressed to find tighter, more sympatico pairings appropriate for this group. At this show however, one could only speak to Maron's deft simplicity in favoring the essential, lock-in groove (that only occasionally hinted at his massive chops) and Wood's daunting musical creativity, punctuated by spellbinding episodes of ferocity that contradicted his unassuming frame.

As much as any of the vital elements present in the music this night, Jason Lindner's contributions were perhaps the most quintessential to its character. (Along with Kneebody's Adam Benjamin), Lindner is at the forefront of a handful of keyboardists that, instead of drawing their sound from hundreds of programs in a modern synth, opt to send a few basic keyboard sounds (in this case from a Rhodes and Prophet 6) into an multi-effected signal chain; manipulated to produce their signature sonic palette. This unique sound, along with Lindner's unfailing exploratory drive, truly set the band's sound and course apart from most contemporaries.

But the sum of these players would've amounted to a lot less had they not found the group synergy to bring together McCaslin's dizzying set of influences into a unified whole, but therein lies the crowning magic of the evening. The night's set was miraculously as wide-ranging as it was coherent -Jazz inflected Bowie covers (Lazarus, Look Back in Anger) sat comfortably next to free form tone poems (Warszawa) and electronica / jazz hybrids (Fast Future); off the charts soloing (Shake Loose) and spacy excursions (Coelacanth 1) were at peace next to the melodically sublime (Remain) -all because the group spoke as one voice. It is also plausible that Bowie's lingering effect on the group, the one that McCaslin honors on Beyond Now, may have had a hand in this magic, also.

Though it's hard to know what portion of the audience was attracted to the Arden show by the Bowie connection, it is obvious that McCaslin and Company's profiles has gotten a real boost from that association. McCaslin himself quipped between songs that suddenly the readership for his interviews had gone from a "Jazz 15" to perhaps a "Rolling Stone 100." If anything was apparent this night though, it was that McCaslin and company have deservedly caught a wave and it's a pretty big one. Witnessing their ride is something not to be missed.

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