Monthly Archives: January 2017

Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin

Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.

The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:-
“It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”

Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on downwithit.info in 2017.

Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.

McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.

I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.

Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.

On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.

McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.

With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.

Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.

The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-

Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village).

downwithit.info will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!

The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.

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The Cat Walk: Donald Byrd


Shame on me. I’m surprised to discover that I’ve not written about a session led by the great Donald Byrd here yet. Time to put that right with this set from 1961.

I searched for this recording for several years after I first heard the title track on Gilles Peterson’s shows sometime in the 1990’s. I can remember hunting through the CD racks every time I visited a shop with a sufficiently strong Jazz presence, in the hope that it would be released, before finally obtaining an expensive Japanese import when it came out there in 2000. I suppose I could have sought out a copy on vinyl but that was in pre-EBay days. Never mind, it came my way eventually.

The Cat Walk is an audible treat which melds Donald Byrd’s trumpet, the baritone of regular band mate Art Pepper and the piano, compositional and arranging skills of Duke Pearson.

Byrd’s musical output spanned a lengthy period from the early 1950’s through hard bop and then perhaps most notably, onto jazz funk. Although, most of my listening to Byrd as a leader has centred on his wonderful Best of Donald Byrd which features tracks from his later jazz funk Blue Note albums, it is this classic 1961 outing that we will take a look at here. We will start, without further ado. with the title track playing in the background.

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Say You’re Mine is one of four tunes on this set that Duke Pearson wrote or collaborated on. Donald Byrd opens with the theme and plays a lengthy solo on his muted trumpet before giving way to the rasping woody tones of Adams’ baritone saxophone. Pearson’s short solo is both delicate and delicious.

Duke’s Mixture is infused with the blues and strikes me as a tightly arranged tune rather than being a soloists vehicle. Although Byrd, Adams and Pearson get a chorus each, this is essentially a big band number played by a quintet.

The joint Duke Pearson and Donald Byrd composition Each Time I Think Of You sounds like an old school swing tune, with some great playing including a fluent, unmuted solo from Byrd.

Byrd’s own tune, The Cat Walk was inspired by the slinky, insouciant lope of a Tomcat. It is the very sort of tune that could have formed the soundtrack for a 1960’s modern dance piece and one wonders if it ever came to the attention of Donald Byrd’s namesake, an eminent choreographer. It is perhaps an earlier, second-cousin example of a jazz dance piece pre dating Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder, which will probably make some explore further, while others recoil. I like it!

Cute was written by Neal Hefti, himself a trumpeter (although this was overshadowed by his contribution as an arranger for Count Basie). Philly Joe Jones is to the fore on this pacy rendition with Byrd laying down a deft solo before Adams comes in, playing lines on his baritone of a type and fluency we are more accustomed to hearing on the much smaller alto saxophone.

The set closes with Hello Bright Sunflower a final Byrd composition. It is a light and joyful breeze of a tune that, to my ears, is vaguely reminiscent of ‘It’s Only a Paper Moon.’

During the 1970’s and 1980’s a cohort of Jazz purists of a certain type were highly critical of Donald Byrd’s later work and this left his reputation somewhat tarnished in mainstream quarters. A re-read of the late Richard Cook’s Blue Note Records, The Biography suggests that Cook viewed Byrd as one of the lesser talents on the label and his playing is given little praise. He states: ‘Byrd’s problem was that he was nearly always going to come off second-best on a label that had trumpeters of the calibre of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Dorham.’ I’m not going to dwell on this curiously imprecise verdict, since, surely we should appreciate each of these great artists on their own merits without attempting to impose a hierarchy. For the record, I’m confident that I’ll be returning to the later works on these pages in due course.

Mention should also be made of Donald Byrd’s great contribution as a jazz educator. He continued his academic studies throughout his career before submitting his PhD and gaining his Doctorate. Dr Byrd was the first director of a new Jazz Studies course at Howard University (where, in the 1960’s, students were forbidden to play Jazz in the Music Department and were expelled for practising on campus) before teaching in other universities. In addition to his eminence as an academic he also qualified as a pilot and as a lawyer. I’m not sure if Dr Byrd is posing next to his own Jaguar on the sleeve? If I had taken the photo I think I would shot from an angle that placed a little more emphasis on Jaguar’s symbolic ‘leaper’ on the bonnet.

Finally, the original sleeve notes were written by Nat Hentoff who passed away last week. He was responsible for numerous cover commentaries and always seemed to me to have been positive, informative and fair-minded. His Wikipedia entry offers a synopsis of the full life of a remarkable man. RIP Nat.

The band etc.:- Donald Byrd (trumpet); Pepper Adams (baritone sax); Duke Pearson (piano); Laymon Jackson (bass); Philly Joe Jones (drums). Recorded 2 May 1961. Rudy Van Gelder Studio, New Jersey. Produced by: Alfred Lion. Sleeve Notes: Nat Hentoff. Cover photo: Francis Wolff. Cover Design: Reid Miles. Issued as Blue Note 84075.

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A Man With A Horn: Lou Donaldson

2017 has dawned. The World is still spinning. I’m delighted to declare that after an abstemious Festive Season, my head isn’t. So, Happy New Year everybody and let’s hope it turns out to be much less ‘interesting’ (in the sense of the Chinese curse) than 2016. Here’s a fresh post to get matters underway at downwithit.

Over the last two months A Man With a Horn has been the most played album on my system and it has led me to an even greater respect for Lou Donaldson.

It is not one of Donaldson’s better-known albums, mainly because it was not released in the early sixties. The two sessions that make up this recording were from 1961 and 1963 and they remained in the vaults until 1999. It was over 35 years before they were dusted down as part of the Blue Note Connoisseur CD series, a conduit for rare and previously unissued material. As far as I am aware, this set has never been issued on vinyl but that does not mean it should not merit attention.

Both sessions featured guitarist Grant Green who was encouraged to move to New York and introduced to the Blue Note label by Donaldson. The earlier session utilises Jack McDuff on Hammond organ in a rare Blue Note outing, whilst John Patton, another Donaldson protege, plays the keyboard on the 1963 date. McDuff is used as an accompaniest, playing understated swirling chords on the five ballads from ’61, while John Patton is given more space to solo.

The CD alternates between songs from each of the sessions and I have marked 1961 tunes with a single asterix (*) and 1963 with double asterixes (**). I initially wondered why the set had been sequenced in this way. I eventually grouped and played through the tracks in the two discrete sessions. This leads me to the conclusion that while the 1961 session, which consists of mellifluous ballads is strong, the tunes benefit from being interspersed with the more uptempo offerings from 1963. As presented there is the variety and texture to turn this CD into a more rewarding listening experience.

The Errol Garner standard Misty* is given a lush rendition as opener. The purity of tone from Lou Donaldson’s alto sax is exceptional and is well-matched by the sensitive contributions from the other three musicians, especially Grant Green. It is currently on Youtube courtesy of Zateuz and you can watch here:-

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Hipity Hop** starts off in the manner of a 1950’s swing tune before John Patton plays an incredible solo starting with a Morse code like trill held for a full 24 bars. It certainly catches the attention. This Donaldson composition is an uptempo and funky toe-tapper and he plays an assertive and exemplary alto sax solo before Grant Green and Patton contribute to a rich confection flavoured by Irvin Stoke’s wah-wah muted trumpet.

It is then back to 1961 for Please*, a second delicate romantic ballad on which all four musicians acquit themselves well.

On My Melancholy Baby** Lou Donaldson builds on riffs that owe much to Charlie Parker’s school of soloing, with an engaging contribution delivered from the trumpet of Stokes.

Man With A Horn* features more delectable and sensitive playing from the 1961 quartet in a track that is a bit of a smoocher.

Cherry Pink And Apple Blossom White** is delivered over a playful cha cha rhythm and contains a solid portion of Grant Green’s ever-tasteful guitar.

Prisoner Of Love* is a standard which was in the charts courtesy of James Brown and The Famous Flames (If still on YouTube this is too good to miss) when this was recorded.

Then it is off to the church of funk with Soul Meetin’**, the second Donaldson composition here and one of those great finger-snapping ‘Baptist Beat’ numbers. I’m very fond of them when they occasionally appear on Blue Note sets. As a New Year bonus this is the second YouTube post courtesy of The Nada73

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The set closes with Star Dust*, a fifth ballad that maintains the high standards of the other four. In his excellent and informative ‘The Jazz Standards’ Ted Gioia refers to it as’…the song to which their parents and grandparents courted, romanced and wed’ and traces the history of this formally much-loved song which is slowly fading into obscurity (in the way of all things).

If you come across this set on CD (and it is relatively rare) don’t hesitate to purchase it as it captures Lou Donaldson playing on the ballads with a very clear and intense tone and also includes a good balance of more uptempo tunes from the 1963 date. Grant Green is on great form, as is John Patton on this very worthwhile jewel from the vaults.

The band etc: Tracks marked * Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); Grant Green (guitar); Jack McDuff (organ); Joe Dukes (drums). Recorded: 25 September 1961
Tracks marked ** Irvin Stokes (trumpet); Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); Grant Green (guitar); John Patton (organ); Ben Dixon (drums). Recorded: 7 June 1963.
Both session recorded at Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. Produced: Alfred Lion. Recorded: Rudy Van Gelder. Sleeve Notes: Ed Hamilton. Cover design: Patrick Roques. Cover photo: Francis Wolff. Issued as Blue Note 21436.

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