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Donny McCaslin - Declaration

4 1/2 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Oct. 5, 2009
Donny McCaslin

Review by Brad Walseth

With Declaration, Donny McCaslin continues to lay his claim as one of the very best tenor saxophonists in the world. Produced by David Binney, McCaslin this time employs a brass ensemble (not unlike Binney's latest Third Occasion see here) - quite a change from last year's well-regarded trio recording, Recommended Tools (see our review here). This configuration allows McCaslin to play off of the brass parts, and play off of them he does. That's something that hasn't changed from Recommended Tools (or Soar, or our 2007 album of the year, In Pursuit), as the talented player utterly shreds with a ferocity that is breathtaking. But here, he also plays with great beauty, as befitting the birth of his daughter Claire - an event that clearly influenced the writing on this album, which veers from sheer joy and excitement to wonder and appreciation of the mystery of life.

His sidemen make up a who's who of cutting edge NYC musicians, including powerhouse drummer Antonio Sanchez, intense guitarist Ben Monder, piano wizard Edward Simon and much-in-demand bassist Scott Colley. Percussionist Pernell Saturino makes an appearance, while the exceptional horns include Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and Marshall Gilkes on trombone. But what really adds a delicious flavor is the addition of such unusual instruments as French Horn, played Chris Komer, and tuba and bass trombone, played by Marcus Rojas. About the only thing one might wish for is for producer Binney to jump up to the mic with his alto, but McCaslin's playing will keep most of us quite satisfied.

Can I mention highlights? McCaslin's solos on "M," the Latin "Fat Cat" and appropriately-titled "Rock Me" are jaw-dropping good and rank with some of the best he has done: how does this guy keep getting better - and how good is he going to get? Simon adds his delicate touch and comfortable creativity, while the up-and-coming star Monder, mostly content to fill the spaces with tasty sounds, sparkles on the beautiful "Jeanina" (written for McCaslin's mother), but he also occasionally cuts loose and adds some searing work, especially on "Rock Me." The title track is one of the truly loveliest pieces McCaslin has written. And old favorite - "Late Night Gospel" is revisited here with the brass bringing the gospel fully into the light. The wonderful horn arrangements are a first for McCaslin and he more than meets the challenge of writing charts that feel fresh and natural. And Colley and Sanchez are first-rate throughout in their support. There are a handful of the new generation of modern saxophonists that simply leave me speechless: David Binney, Chris Potter, and David Sanchez, but Donny McCaslin is right there near the top of the list.

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