by Andrew Janak
2018 is a golden age of tenor saxophonists. New releases from modern luminaries like Walter Smith III, Ben Wendel, and Mark Turner have made this year one of the most exciting in recent memory for aficionados of the tenor, and perhaps no album is as genre-bending and unique asBlowby Donny McCaslin. Showing the influence of his collaboration with David Bowie on Bowie’s final album Blackstar, Blow runs the gamut of styles from electronic art pop to grunge to polyrhythmic modern jazz. What sticks out the most about McCaslin’s latest release is the prominence of vocal numbers throughout the album, with 8 of 11 tracks featuring several different vocalists including Mark Kozelek, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Ryan Dahle (among others). The lyrics on the album sometimes take aim at the current polarized political climate with “New Kindness” calling for a kind of “new kindness” to move us out the period of division in present day America. The prominence of vocals could arguably make Blow more of a pop/rock than jazz release, although such labels do not do justice to the intricate music on the album.
McCaslin’s collaborators from Blackstar (Jason Linder, Ben Monder, Tim Lefebvre, Mark Guiliana) return on Blow and are integral parts of the album’s gritty sound. Tim Lefebvre’s electric bass in particular shines on the aptly named “Exactlyfourminutesofimprovisedmusic”playing in vibrant counterpoint to McCaslin’s virtuosic, multiphonic improvisations. This track is pure unadulterated McCaslin that his fans have come to expect over his last couple albums – heavy use of electronics, a strong backbeat from the drums, and pyrotechnical tenor saxophone testing the limits of the instrument’s sonic and technical possibilities. Linder’s synth playing throughout the album contributes to the ethereal flavor found on several of the tracks, especially the instrumental tune “Break the Bond” where his extended keyboard improvisation makes extensive use of the manipulation of sound.
“Great Destroyer” features hypnotic saxophone/guitar riffs and bright pop vocal harmonies. The track feels like it could easily be on a modern pop record and McCaslin’s role is mostly complimentary – interjecting just a few short improvisations. The soulful ending track “ Eye of the Beholder” features Gail Ann Dorsey’s wistful vocals over a backbeat with McCaslin turning in one of his most lyrical solos of the album. The lyrics again lament polarization in society and the lack of agreement amongst people on objective truths and facts stating: “searching for the truth in the eye of the beholder, what’s the use if we’re all just growing older?” McCaslin is subdued over the pensive backbeat using a slow, mournful vibrato to capture the poignant vibe of the tune. After the vocals return, McCaslin’s solo fills behind Dorsey at the end of the track never overwhelm and bring the album to a calm, peaceful close.
Donny McCaslin’s tenor is still a prominent part of Blow, but listeners expecting a typical jazz tenor album of overwhelming tenor virtuosity from start to finish may be disappointed. There are not any head-solo-head tunes for McCaslin to shred over. However, Blow is McCaslin’s most mature, fully formed musical statement in his decades long recording career. This reviewer cannot wait to see what McCaslin has in store next.