The Basement, May 31
Imagine a world in which in which television, rather than clogging itself with “reality” food shows, filled its airwaves with footage of exceptional bands and orchestras rehearsing, so we were privy to the process of the Donny McCaslin Group hatching its music. Now that would be worth watching.
McCaslin, the New York tenor saxophonist who leads the band that helped David Bowie make his final opus, Blackstar, has arrived at a multifaceted musical vision like no other. Its rock-based rhythmic puzzles are laced with so many displaced beats as would shatter a putative dancer’s tibia. The compositional structures are demonically unpredictable, the sounds and textures can be as foreign as the lifeforms in the Mariana Trench, and the density and intensity can be overwhelming.
A large share of the textural uniqueness lies with keyboards player Jason Lindner. He made simple ideas exotic thanks to alien sounds, was pivotal in making the music sometimes impenetrably dense, and where countless guitarists have pointlessly sought to sound like a keyboard, he could adopt the infinitely more intriguing ploy of making a keyboard sound something like a guitar.
While the rhythm section of electric bassist Jonathan Maron and drummer Zach Danziger were not McCaslin’s regulars, they had the rhythmic language nailed, and Danziger joined forces with Lindner in compounding the density and with McCaslin in brewing the furious intensity.
Sometimes this density and intensity arrived at phases of sonic gridlock that made the improvising overly similar from one song to another. More often it was thrilling: brutally so on Beast (McCaslin’s Trump “tribute”); potently so on an instrumental version of Bowie’s Lazarus, perhaps the most spectral piece from the infinitely dark Blackstar. McCaslin’s sound, routinely keening and yearning, was here initially more soulful as he embarked on a long solo. This the saxophonist and his band built relentlessly, piling climax on climax, and still reaching higher, until a tsunami of sound was engulfing the room, leaving us with a feeling that was as close as music can bring one to catharsis.