Review by Brad Walseth
Tenor saxophone titan, Donny McCaslin, continues to put himself in new and challenging musical situations that serve to bring out the best in his abilities while also his fueling his impressive growth and reputation as one of the preeminent tenor saxophonists of the modern generation. His last three albums have run the gamut from Afro-Latin influences (In Pursuit) to a pianoless trio setting (Recommended Tools) to brass band compositions (Declaration). Now, on Perpetual Motion, McCaslin explores a gnarly post-bop and at times electro-funk direction with strongly rewarding results. Backed here by bassist Tim Lefebre, keyboard players Adam Benjamin and Uri Caine (on eight and three tracks respectively) and drummers Antonio Sanchez (first five tracks) and Mark Guiliana (the following four). Mixed by Mike Marciano and executive produced by Dave Douglas, the album also features long time associate producer and mad scientist David Binney on electronics and alto sax on one track.
Taking it's title to heart, album opener "Five Hands Down" lurches into action immediately, propelled by Sanchez's hurricane force drumming and Benjamin's sparkling Fender Rhodes before McCaslin announces his presence with yet another of his patented, angular free-flowing saxophone forays that will leave the listener amazed at the creativity and skill possessed by the artist. The ferocious blowing is not for the faint-hearted, but will appeal strongly to the adventurous listener. The epic title track follows and gives McCaslin even more space to explore regions of his instrument that so far have been undiscovered on his lengthy and Herculean solos. Benjamin responds with some pleasingly restrained electric piano waves (with electronic washes by Binney) that contrast nicely to the aggressive nature of the music. Most people would write a quiet little lullaby for their infant daughter, but in keeping with McCaslin's unique nature, his "Claire" is another long (11:19) and intense number that starts off with he and Sanchez going at it hard mano-a-mano, as if embroiled in a heavyweight fight. The rest of the band joins in as McCaslin presents a ringing and joyful theme, and Benjamin again serves as primary melodic foil with a tasty Rhodes solo.
Meanwhile, Lefebvre's heavily-effected bass opens things, while Binney's electronics and Caine's electronic piano float above Sanchez's barrage on the atmospheric "Firefly." Things start to get real funky on "Energy Generation" - a piece with an electric Miles '70s flavor (albeit more uptempo) some of McCaslin's most incendiary shredding. Following in the footsteps of his Late Night Gospel," "Memphis Redux" is some delightfully greasy down-home cooking, with Guiliana taking over on drums. The fun continues on the grooving "L.Z.C.M" with more McCaslin cartwheels and a highly-effected bass solo to boot. One wishes the 30-second-long "East Bay Grit" would have been extended, but the jangly shifting "Impossible Machine" (cowritten with Binney) makes up for it and features McCaslin is at his most astonishingly inventive. A lovely solo piano piece by Caine ("For Someone") is a bit of a surprising coda, but only adds yet another interesting touch to this highly rewarding new release.