It takes equal parts skill and confidence in your abilities to do what tenor saxophone titan McCaslin does here on his new recording, Recommended Tools. This first release on trumpeter Dave Douglas' new Greenleaf Music label, places the saxophonist center stage, in a piano-less trio, with only bassist Hans Glawishnig and drummer Jonathan Blake to back him up. This configuration is rare, with few attempts and fewer successes. Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and recently, Joshua Redman, have made recordings in this vein, and the stripped down sound requires utterly prodigious technique to keep the listeners' attention span. Fortunately, McCaslin is up to the task.
Perhaps best known as Michael Brecker's successor in "Steps Ahead," and as a featured soloist in the acclaimed Maria Schneider Orchestra, McCaslin has released several excellent recordings. 2006's Soar was a breakthrough that gained the artist considerable attention. Last year's In Pursuit was a stellar release, that beat out Brecker's final album Pilgrimage as JazzChicago.net's #1 album of the year (see our review here). A relentless explorer on his instrument, the timing is perfect for McCaslin to release a recording in a trio format. Although, I generally prefer more instrumentation, I must admit that McCaslin may be playing better than ever, and with the exceptionally empathetic backing of this first rate rhythm section, more instrumentation is not missed.
Produced by David Binney and recorded live crisply and cleanly directly to two-track, Recommended Tools was composed by McCaslin, except for the Billy Strahorn song, "Isfahan." Some of the tracks have been released before in different settings, so it is interesting to hear what McCaslin does with them here. For fans of saxophone playing, the results are quite rewarding. There are only a handful of players in the world with the kind of technique exhibited here. He shreds, swoops, bends and burns, while Glawishnig and Blake pitch in with inspired group interaction.
With inspiration from artists like Gil Evans, Bill Frisell, French composer Oliver Messian, Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, Brazilian legend Hermeto Pascaul and the aforementioned great trio recordings, McCaslin and his trio certainly have the right influences in place, and their skills and ability to listen to one another produce an exceptional outing. Songs like "Excursion" and "The Champion" show McCaslin burning it up, but he also shines on the quieter tunes like 'Late Night Gospel," "Margins of Solitude" and "Isfahan." One of my favorite tunes from In Pursuit ("Fast Brazil") is revisited with quite pleasing results. I still have to honestly say I prefer a chordal setting with more instrumentation, but McCaslin and crew have certainly given us another great trio recording that displays the tenor star's solo gifts in the full light of the spotlight.
Donny McCaslin appears this Friday and Saturday - Oct. 10-11 at the Green Mill in Chicago.