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It's not because he lacks talent or he hasn't been playing in the right circles, but somehow Donny McCaslin has never made a real breakthrough until The Way Through. This is his third record as a leader, though he's been active on the road and in the studio since his days at Berklee. Some may remember Steps Ahead (check out Vibe, 1994) or Lan Zang (eg. Hidden Gardens, 2000), but quite honestly this is the place to start if you're curious about what McCaslin can do.
The Way Through washes all the way through without any real low points, though it covers some major ground. Half the compositions belong to the leader, interspersed with familiar tunes like Wayne Shorter's "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'N You" (both mistitled in the liner notes, always a bad sign). The key factor is how McCaslin and his group of like-minded (and longtime) collaborators manage to turn each tune into an opportunity to explore a mood. Never too far left or right of center (with the exception of the exotic "Break Tune"), this band takes risks and employs all the tricks of modern jazz to burrow deep.
"Atmospheric" might not be the right word for this music, given all the irrelevant vacuous overtones, but it does convey the sense of space these players seem to treasure. The opening "Skyward" does indeed soar free, launched by McCaslin's rocket-like opening line and fueled with some serious popping group energy down the road. "Shadowlands" is about as dark and mysterious as it gets, clarinet and flute carrying some breathy overtones to complement McCaslin's voice on the tenor. And the title track makes use of understated, quiet tension (and Adam Cruz's marimba) to very gradually build up to a souful climax.
You'll want to listen to the sidemen, including bassist Scott Colley and drummer Adam Cruz, but the real treasure of this recording is McCaslin himself. The leader gets his points across rather directly and fluently, but at no point does he ever become predictable. And at all times he maintains a strong sense of forward momentum. This is a fine record that has worn scores of listens without any disappointment.
Track Listing: 1. Skyward (McCaslin) - 6:01 2. San Lorenzo (McCaslin) - 2:49 3. Shadowlands (McCaslin) - 6:31 4. I Should
Care (Cahn) - 5:59 5. The Way Through (McCaslin) - 7:50 6. Break Tune (McCaslin) - 3:57 7. Free California
(Binney/McCaslin) - 3:22 8. Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum (Shorter) - 5:40 9. What Remains (Gillespie) - 4:35 10. Woody N'
3:30 11. Flutter (Binney/McCaslin) - 5:46
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.