Donny McCaslin, a leading light as saxophonist and bandleader in contemporary jazz, returns with Fast Future (Greenleaf Music). This new record expands upon and refines the work he started with 2012’s Grammy-winning Casting for Gravity, with the same supporting cast: Tim Lefebvre on bass, Jason Lindner on keys, Mark Guiliana on drums, and producer David Binney. Befitting the name, this record has a peripatetic quality, rushing from place to place with wild abandon, but also bears a love of decay. It revels in moments of calm and the fluidity of time, as notes and textures dissolve into one another.
These pieces understand the terror of future shock and the anxiety of dissociation. They resist comfort even while indulging McCaslin’s finely crafted melodicism. Shaky synths dissolve into chunky keyboard chords and find an uneasy middle ground between the stuttered, stomping drums and bass and McCaslin’s buttery tone on “This Side of Sunrise,” unraveling and atomizing the mood of new, grey sunlight on this Binney-written track. That mix of questioning and certainty, inevitability and freedom, is also epitomized by the title track, wherein ‘80s keyboards are layered under an assured sax line and over hard drums. It’s a song that could fill a dancefloor in a way “serious” jazz barely tangles with these days, with a hook that echoes into the night like a satellite calling back to Earth.
The cover of Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats” explodes the source from the inside out to conjure the European free improv tradition, tying these varying strains of past avant-gardes while remaining visceral body music. This track features some of the most delightful, delirious playing from the rhythm section, as Lindner takes a stronger rhythmic role than the coloring he brings to much of the record and Lefebvre and Guiliana finish each others phrases. This all happens under McCaslin’s diamond-hard skronk, with everyone goading everyone on.
Given McCaslin’s knack for melody, it’s no surprise the ballads are generally high points on this record. His gripping “Love What Is Mortal,” with its melodic line half-whispered and half-shouted, a moody bass line, and almost martial drums over electric piano, is marred by a faux-voicemail sample but not sunk by even that hoariest of cliches. Similarly, the tension between Guiliana’s hard, driving drums, the languid pace of Lefebvre’s bass, and McCaslin’s easy tenor shadowed by Lindner’s sultry keyboard is the fuel in the tank of “Love and Living.” Sometimes, though, that tension never quite coheres into something as interesting as those examples. “Midnight Light” fails to find the fissures that would make its prettiness beautiful; softness upon softness of tone adds up to too much richness with no brightness. Binney’s wordless vocals on a few tracks conjure ‘60s cocktail jazz like Les McCann, but are a definite stumbling block.
Fast Future finds something fascinating even in its few missteps, and does a beautiful job of providing something new to love while still bringing a knowledge of the past. As a piece of art, this is a reminder to always look, to always search, to always be curious, but do it at your pace. You don’t need to pretend to be a child to have a childlike enthusiasm for the world, and Donny McCaslin’s new record is a rousing reminder of that.