Donny McCaslin’s latest opens with a dramatic statement of intent; ‘Shake Loose,’ with its shifting dynamics, virtuosic saxophone, frantic drums and sci-fi keyboard effects could serve as a microcosm of the album ahead and the band as a whole, loudly displaying their capacity to push one of the United States’ oldest and proudest musical traditions forward.
The band is comprised of McCaslin on saxophone, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Nate Wood on guitar, Mark Guiliana on drums and Jason Lindner on keys. If their sound is familiar to ears outside of the New York avant-garde jazz scene, that’s because they have the unique privilege of serving as David Bowie’s last band. Existing at the little-explored intersection between traditional jazz and electronic music, it’s easy to see why the ever-changing Bowie recruited McCaslin and co. to play on and thus define the sound of the boundary-pushing ‘Blackstar.’
McCaslin dedicated ‘Beyond Now’ to Bowie and the album features two of his songs. ‘A Small Plot of Land,’ an obscure gem from ‘1. Outside,’ features the only vocals on the album from guest Jeff Taylor. Faithfulness to the duke’s disquieting melody over the band’s unstable support lends an air of menace to the tune that rivals the original. Later, the band offers a spacious, elegiac reading of the Berlin period classic ‘Warszawa.’ The ponderous rendition captures what words cannot and may be the standout performance of the album.
Elsewhere, the band reimagines Deadmau5’s ‘Coelacanth 1’ as a hushed epic, its ambiguous tonality goading the listener on as minutes melt away, and MUTEMATH’s ‘Remain,’ which steadily builds to a breathless climax before a sighing conclusion.
The group’s originals are strong testaments to their inventiveness and raw talent as composers and improvisers. McCaslin’s searing work on saxophone is matched by Wood’s guitar on the title track, while Lefebvre’s muscular bass lends a harder edge to ‘FACEPLANT’ than is heard on the rest of the album. Lindner perhaps most straddles the line between traditionalism and experimentation, performing a gorgeous and timeless piano interlude on ‘Glory’ while conjuring odd synthetic sounds on tracks like ‘Bright Abyss’ that seem like they could only belong to the future.
Guiliana’s frenetic, sometimes spastic drumming, however, may be the defining attribute of the band’s sound. Also a major asset on ‘Blackstar,’ his work here keeps a number of the songs feeling like they’re on the verge of collapse and forces the attentive listener to stay on their toes. His sophisticated yet primal beats, like Lindner’s keys, merge acoustic and electronic tendencies to make something wholly unique and constantly riveting.
Despite the particularity of the band’s sound and drawn out nature of many of the songs here, ‘Beyond Now’ never stagnates and never feels redundant, with each song evolving through its running time. It amounts to a record of sustained interest from first note to last. If the explosion of the band’s profile by way of their work with Bowie put any pressure on them, it is not apparent on ‘Beyond Now.’ They exist proudly the ranks of modern jazz artists like Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding and Ambrose Akinmusire, pushing the genre back into the popular consciousness just as they push it into exciting, uncharted territory.