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Straight No Chaser - A Jazz Show

Welcome to Straight No Chaser, the Award-winning Podcast hosted by Jeffrey Siegel

Nov 9, 2011

On June 28, 1965, John Coltrane convened a recording session that marked his move from straight-ahead jazz titan to avant-garde explorer. He described the sound as a “big band thing”, and in fact it was a very big band that met in Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio that day. Along with Coltrane’s long-time running mates Jimmy Garrison (bass), McCoy Tyner (piano) and Elvin Jones (drums), were pairs of trumpeters (Freddie Hubbard and Dewey Johnson), tenor saxophonists (Archie Shepp and Pharoah Sanders), alto saxophonists (Marion Brown and John Tchicai) and bassist Art Davis.

Considering Coltrane’s previous album contained “Nature Boy” and “Chim Chim Cheree”, it must have been shocking even to the season listeners at Impulse Records to hear Ascension, a long, often difficult piece that abandoned chords almost entirely for progressive modes and on the spot improvisation. Coltrane never returned to “structured jazz” again.

In a reprise of Jazz Standard’s hugely successful Impulse! Records 50th Anniversary celebration earlier this year, an all–star nonet will assume the weighty mantle of reinterpreting Ascension. Saxophonists Donny McCaslin, Sabir Mateen, and Vincent Herring will have the responsibility of carrying the torch lit by Coltrane, Shepp and Sanders that day. Joe Lovano will help prepare the arrangements for the band, which includes Jeremy Pelt on trumpet, Josh Roseman on trombone, James Weidman on piano, Ben Allison on bass, and Billy Drummond and Matt Wilson on drums.

I spoke with McCaslin, who at 45, has finally come into his own, about this awesome responsibility, his latest recent recording projects, both with Dave Douglas and as a band leader, and his plans for the future. Click here to listen to the conversation, along with musical selections, including:

Donny McCaslin – “LZCM” from Perpetual Motion. Donny’s latest CD gives a nod to fusion by employing electric and amplified instruments. The band is McCaslin on tenor saxophone; Adam Benjamin on Fender Rhodes; Tim Lefebvre on electric bass; and Mark Guiliana on drums.

Danilo Perez - "Vera Cruz" from ...Till Then. The Panamanian pianist is one of McCaslin's oldest friends, collaborators, and musical influences. This track, written by BRazilian legend Milton Nasciemento, comes from Perez's 2003 release on Verve Records, with a top band, including John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade on drums, and McCaslin on soprano saxophone.

Maria Schneider Orchestra - "Buleria, Solea y Rumba" from Concert in the Garden. McCaslin earned a Grammy Award for being part of the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Recording, taking a long solo on a composition described by Ms. Schneider as “the most ambitious work on this recording”. The usual all-star selection of players peppers the Orchestra, including Tim Ries on alto sax, McCaslin on tenor sax, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Frank Kimbrough on piano, Jeff Ballard and Conazlo Grau on cajon And ouinto cajon, and Luciana Souza on vocals.

Dave Douglas – “Culture Wars” from Meaning and Mystery. McCaslin is a long-time sideman for trumpeter Douglas, and currently records for Douglas’s independent record label, Greenleaf Music. This hot track is from Douglas’ 2006 album, which included Douglas on trumpet, McCaslin on tenor sax, Uri Caine on Fender Rhodes; James Genus: on bass; and Clarence Penn on drums. It’s worth reprinting a portion of the CD review from All About Jazz: 

(McCaslin’s) solo on "Culture Wars is stunning. But then, so is the tune. Built around a simple horn phrase and eschewing Douglas' trademark mixed-meter predilections in favor of a more straightforward groove—seldom has Douglas done so much with so little—it's the best jazz performance this year. Douglas' trumpet intro, which carries on two minutes into the piece before the theme is even stated, seems to investigate and limn the possibilities of what's to come and is, like all his playing on this album, deft, sly and full of his trademark crispness and wit. Caine bravely follows McCaslin's solo with one of his own that, without resorting to grandiosity, somehow builds even more momentum as it negotiates the song's simple but elegant harmonic landscape. It's a fantastic song.