Dave Liebman / David Binney / Donny McCaslin / Samuel Blais - Four Visions Saxophone Quartet

Label: Sunnyside Records, 2019

Personnel - Samuel Blais: baritone sax; Dave Liebman: soprano sax, flute; Donny McCaslin: tenor sax; David Binney: alto sax.

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The music hailed from classic saxophone quartets (typically comprising soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone) can be very exciting when in the hands of wise, influential musicians. Good examples are World Saxophone Quartet and Rova Saxophone Quartet, both founded in 1977 and with the latter still active. Now, a new ensemble of the same kind arrives, with its top-notch members showing off their multifaceted genius while fully enjoying a bracing musical camaraderie.

The Four Visions Saxophone Quartet was born from an idea of baritonist Samuel Blais, who first invited his former teacher, master soprano saxist Dave Liebman, to join him. The remaining two positions available couldn’t be better filled, with Donny McCaslin and David Binney bringing their tone quality and persuasive language on tenor and alto, respectively. The quartet’s debut album features ten compositions specifically written for the occasion. Blais and Binney contributed three compositions each, while McCaslin and Liebman penned two.

Blaizza” inaugurates the session with flowing melodies in strong counterpoint and shifting tempos, combining four distinct timbres for a stunning effect. For this two-part tune straddling between modern classical and contemporary jazz, Blais sought inspiration on “Andante and Scherzo” by French composer Eugène Bozza. Conversely, his “Et Vois Et Jours” was originally written for a jazz quartet and readapted to fit the context of this disc. Manifestly, there’s absolutely no need for chordal support here since the combinations of notes clearly imply harmonic movement.

Relying on unisons, polyphonies, and question-and-answer mechanics, the passages in Binney’s “Dunes” are accessible to the ear but relatively complex in the execution. Whether intoned with stately grace or rhythmic impact, the piece is highly enjoyable, reaching a climax with the altoist’s impromptu projections on top of a groove formed by a sturdy baritone pedal and tenor-soprano ostinatos in seven. Also penned by Binney, the staccato-infused “Empty Sunbeans” could be turned into a great pop/rock song, while “Technicolor Penguins” vouches a head sequenced by off-centered melodic ideas and rhythmically accurate unisons. You’ll find poignant, tone-bent cries by McCaslin and Binney evolving into long runs toward a crescendo that culminates in piercing notes.

So luxuriant and precise in its conception, “Legions” was envisioned by McCaslin with a new found determination, and it’s all about superior interplay. It features the composer and Liebman in crisp and exuberant exchanges and Binney in a high flight. The former two deliver again on “Buy a Mountain”, another McCaslin-penned stunner.

Liebman brought the longest piece into the collection, with the cogitative “In Bach’s Studio” clocking in at nearly 16 minutes. However, it’s with “A Moody Time” that he enchants the most. Besides inside/outside offerings, he delineates epic unisons, combines a mix of thematic Eastern and Western flavors, and devises a bouncing 15/8 groove that gains emphasis with the potency of the baritone.

Promoting textural variety in their advanced writings, these accomplished saxophonists, more than fulfilling their improvisational duties, dabble in the tonal qualities of their reed instruments with an extensive range of approaches. The result is a wonderful album.

Grade  A

Grade A

Favorite Tracks:
03 - Legions ► 06 - A Moody Day ► 07 - Technicolor Penguins


Donny McCaslin - Beyond Now

Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Jason Lindner: keyboards; Tim Lefebvre: electric bass; Mark Guiliana: drums; David Binney: synth; Nate Wood: guitar; Jeff Taylor: vocals.

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Widely acclaimed saxophonist Donny McCaslin returns with a personalized project of his authorship after participating in David Bowie’s Blackstar.
McCaslin reunites his Fast Future quartet, whose members - Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums - were also crucial in the English pop star's lattermost album, and adds a few influential guest musicians to play on selected songs.
The nine tracks of Beyond Now intelligently combine a variety of variables that catapult McCaslin to the vanguard of the modern jazz. 

The opening tune, “Shake Loose” pulses with hypnotic rhythmic chops and feels simultaneously urban and futuristic. With strong influences of pop-rock, jazz, and electronic music, the quartet proliferates a penetrating tension that remains elevated until its release through expansive harmonic progressions and the attractive melody of the chorus. 
A comparable approach is used in the melodious and patiently-driven “Bright Abyss”, another fantastic original that quickly connects to our senses through a sober, alert, and provocative instrumentation. The emotional grandeur brought into its final section, which is magnified by voices, has become McCaslin’s signature over the years. 

Having worked with David Bowie must have been a great honor for these musicians. Grateful for the opportunity, they've agreed in the recording of two of his songs: “A Small Plot of Land”, featuring Jeff Taylor on vocals and Nate Wood on guitar, is a depressive chant whose inaugural regular beats gain a stronger perspective as Guiliana introduces richer drumming maneuvers; and “Warszawa”, which is strongly anchored in Lindner’s obscure interventions, becoming a suitable prop for McCaslin’s infatuations.
The quartet dabbles in ambient-electronic allures through the addition of Deadmau5’s “Coelacanth 1”, in which the quartet attempts to describe the beauty but also the dangers of a distant planet, and Mutemath’s “Remain”, a soulful blend of electronic, pop, and gospel that left me in a state of inebriant ecstasy. 
Glory” only reinforces the bandleader’s dexterity as a composer and improviser, at the same time that features Lindner in a beautiful solo piano instance. The intensification of the closing harmonic cycles brought in more of the saxophonist’s swirling explorations.

McCaslin’s sound and ideas remain fresh and original, and Beyond Now stands a few steps ahead of the present time. As a pioneer of this type of fusion, he solidifies the present by keeping an eye in the future. After all, he’s a jazz giant, a reputation founded on his own merit.

Favorite Tracks:
05 – Bright Abyss ► 08 – Glory ► 09 – Remain