Donny McCaslin's last release Recommended Tools was a sax-trio date, which is the jazz equivalent of walking the High Wire over a shark tank in a high wind. The disc was incredible, but the multi-instrumentalist must have seriously related to David Blaine and Criss Angel when it was completed. For Declaration, McCaslin brought more backup -- a lot more, including a five-piece horn section that could shut down most marching bands.
This should not be interpreted as an overreaction. Recommended had an unfettered joy that said the adrenaline rush was well worth the journey. The expanded lineup on Declaration offers McCaslin more options, both as a composer and arranger. He's worked with some of the best in these two categories (including Dave Douglas and Maria Schneider), and these eight tracks show McCaslin definitely paid attention to his leaders.
For example, he knows how to give his players space: On the suite-like opening piece "M," McCaslin doesn't appear until the scene is beautifully set by Ben Monder, Edward Simon, and Chris Komer; Komer's French horn then joins the rest of the brass in a chord-based, in-the-clear "vocalese" that clears the way for McCaslin's lustrous tenor sax. Simon gets deep into meditation on the middle section, but the tune literally ends on a resounding high note, with the horns joining drummer Antonio Sanchez in urging McCaslin to more dizzying heights.
A McCaslin solo isn't just a sizzling plate of chops -- it is dialogue, and McCaslin's stunning range of emotion makes each story riveting. (He also "re-tells" a story from Recommended, using his augmented unit to expand the alleyway lament "Late Night Gospel.") Although McCaslin jousts with most of his players, Simon is his main foil, providing dancing piano for the complex "Fat Cat" and monstrous organ for the self-explanatory "Rock Me." Monder's legend grows another foot here, thanks to a guitar that goes balls-out on "Rock Me" and draws inward on the balladic "Jeanina."
Even when surrounded by the tremendous players in Douglas and Schneider's respective units, McCaslin always stood out. With Declaration, he stands out both as leader and composer… which is way better than standing on a wire and looking down at a tank full of teeth.
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