REVIEW: Donny McCaslin at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Donny McCaslin in the Jazz Arena
Photo credit: © John Watson/jazzcamera.co.uk

Donny McCaslin
(Jazz Arena, 6 May 2018, Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Review by Mike Collins)

Above the Jazz Arena stage were large strips of pulsing LED lamps; blue, green, red they went, apparently in response to the music. And then, was it an illusion? The tumult beneath them reached such a pitch of intensity that they appeared to freeze, trying to glow blue-green-red all at once.

Kevin Scott stood tall, shoulders braced, full beard jutting, shades obscuring his expression, electric bass throbbing beneath his touch as Zach Danziger pounded the kit. Jason Lindner was adding layer upon layer to the electronic squall he was generating from his keyboards. It was the climax to Faceplant from Donny McCaslin’s 2016 release Beyond Now. McCaslin’s sax was effect laden too, somewhere between a scream and howl. The sense of being pinned breathless to the chair subsided as the bustling off-kilter theme returned and they screeched to a halt.

There were whoops of approval as McCaslin announced the last tune, Lazarus, their take on the song recorded by David Bowie for his last album Blackstar, on which both McCaslin and Lindner worked. That music has provided much of the inspiration for the tenor man’s current set and, as McCaslin jokingly alluded to when describing the set as ballads, there was no let up in the energy and directness in the hour long tour-de-force. Lazarus was a fitting finale, the slower tempo allowing the chanting, keening sax to build an emotional momentum to the anthemic melody, over the rhythmic hubbub of the band.

Danziger was an extraordinary volcanic presence throughout. There were moments when I wondered if he had custom made extra thick sticks from Vic Firth, as some of the blows to his toms became more a sensation than a sound. The skittering scampering fills hinted at the cadences of dance-music occasionally, but Scott’s pulsating bass grounded them in a rocky world. McCaslin and Lindner combined to make the themes sound like incantations.

There were new pieces in the set, including a nod to Reggae greats with one piece that included a grooving back-beat and ghostly, reverb-heavy sax. There was an extended, extraordinary solo section from McCaslin on Warswaza, skirling, swirling lines, distorted and made unearthly with effects and echo. This was an uncompromising, full throated blast from this band, exploring and re-inventing the sound of the last stage of Bowie’s career and loudly welcomed by the enthusiastic crowd it had drawn.

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter @jazzyblogman

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