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Donny McCaslin Group
The Toff in Town, Melbourne

Melbourne International Jazz Festival
by Greg Phillips

donnyCelebrating its 20th year, the Melbourne International Jazz Festival has always worked hard to deliver a diverse range of artists, from genuine legends of the genre to cutting edge musicians who question boundaries, to all points in between.

At the Toff In Town tonight,  New York based tenor saxophonist/band leader Donny McCaslin and his group signal their intentions right from the beginning. Kicking off with Shake Loose, the opening track off Donny’s new album Beyond Now,  keyboard player Jason Linder tests our comfort levels as he thrusts upon us crude growls and howls from his synth palette, while partner in crime McCaslin eagerly adds fuel to the fire stabbing at and squealing from his sax, building, escalating to who knows where. Yet just as feelings of unease begin to permeate your soul, McCaslin releases an opulent, extended note in a key of reassurance that resolves the aural storm we’ve just experienced, making sense of it all and placing the piece as a whole into context. The audience is on edge, the band is firing and we’ve been put on notice. It’s going to be a wild ride. This is the new breed of jazz. Much like contemporaries such as Bad Bad Not Good and Kamasi Washington, these musicians are proving the point that you can never run out of new musical ideas.

Had the Donny McCaslin Group not been brought to our attention as the exhilarating backing band to David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, would there have been the same excitement and anticipation which has generated packed houses to each of the four Melbourne International Jazz Festival appearances at The Toff in Town? Maybe not, but it’s merely time which would have stood between the same recognition here anyway. After all, McCaslin has recorded a dozen acclaimed albums, been nominated for 3 Grammys and collaborated with Lang Xang, Maria Schneider and John Medeski among many others. Talent this invigorating can only hide from discerning Australian music fans for so long.

The band ebb and flow from moments of sheer beauty to stanzas of brazen, punk-like resonance, adding multiple sonic textures, always contributing to a bigger picture, making it impossible not to be a participant in their journey. Zach Danziger adds much to the grandeur of this collective with a rock approach to his kit, as Jonathan Maron on bass is constantly surveying the situation, delivering exactly what the moment requires, every time.

While the Donny McCaslin Group will continue to dazzle on the international jazz stage in their own right, they will forever be reminded of their place in contemporary music history as David Bowie’s final backing band. When the moment arrives that they play Lazarus from the rock icon’s last album, a sense of reverence overwhelms the room, this is the real deal, this is the sound of Blackstar.

A further nod to the man is revealed with their performance of Warszawa from Bowie’s Low album, a track which can also be found on McCaslin’s new record Beyond Now. With seventy five minutes down, the Donny McCaslin Group finish in the manner in which they began, with a crescendo of beautifully strange, enchanting and challenging rhythms, leaving us mere music fans to evaluate and understand why this was one of the most fascinating performances we’ve seen for some time.

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