Anyone who has followed Donny McCaslin's career, particularly over the last decade, understands that his quartet's collaboration with David Bowie on Blackstar was already a perfect fit. This band -- comprised of the saxophonist, drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and keyboardist Jason Lindner -- offered recorded evidence of their unique, exploratory yet accessible meld of modern jazz, pop, and electronic music. (2012's Casting for Gravity was issued before Bowie caught them at 55 Club, and 2015's Fast Future was recorded before and released just after they worked together.) Beyond Now, inspired by and in tribute to Bowie, was cut in the months just after his death. In addition to five McCaslin originals, it includes four covers -- two Bowie covers, the singles "A Small Plot of Land" (from Outside) and "Warszawa" (Low) -- as well as two others.
McCaslin's "Shake Loose" is an excellent opener and example of what this band does. A funky, angular keyboard vamp is accented by skittering breaks and a pulsing bassline while the saxist vacillates between scalar melody and fiery improvisation over tempo and dynamic changes. Lindner's keyboards draw the listener ever closer with their spacy, post-midnight techno overtones. "A Small Plot of Land" is recognizably reverential, but the quartet put their own stamp on it. Jeff Taylor's guest vocal is refracted through canny rhythmic interplay between Lefebvre and Guiliana. They bridge McCaslin's cathartic saxophone and the sharp-edged guitar break by Nate Wood, who also guests. The title track is a mini-suite, winding through an airy, sometimes intimate, sometimes intense, series of thematic statements all guided by Lefebvre's inventive bass. "Bright Abyss" offers a contrast between post-bop jazz balladry and funky, outre exploration, with David Binney playing additional synths. McCaslin's playing is at the center, always soulful and emotive. A cover of Deadmau5's "Coelacanth 1" melds ambience and lyricism in a beautiful respite before the explosive "Faceplant," a quirky, polyrhythmic rocker with driving bass work. McCaslin and Lindner madly push at and through Guiliana's hyperkinetic drumming. The reading of "Warszawa" is longer than the original; the quartet treat it with attentiveness and respect as they stretch its mournful body toward improvisation but never lose sight of it. "Glory" commences inquisitively with Lindner's acoustic piano revolving around a minor-key chord sequence before inviting his bandmates in. Guiliana's swinging shuffle and Lefebvre's bassline underscore the pianist's harmonic expansiveness before McCaslin enters with extrapolated and circular modal lines, simultaneously interrogative and assertive. The band responds by ratcheting up the intensity, making it evolve into a transcendent anthem. The delivery of MUTEMATH's "Remain" is a tender continuation that possesses its own -- albeit gentler -- dynamism to deliver a fitting and reflective closer.
Because of their association with Bowie, the quartet's Beyond Now will get attention from a wider range of music fans than a jazz album normally would. But this record warrants attention on its own merits because it showcases the exciting, genre-blurring sound of a sophisticated band coming into its own. ~ Thom Jurek
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