Donny McCaslin has long seemed a prime candidate to update and upgrade fusion jazz-rock. Since as far back as Seen From Above in 2000, his tenor saxophone style has been fueled by a rambunctious lyricism that isn’t afraid to leave skid marks on his phrases. By “Rock Me,” off Declaration in 2009, he’d discovered a fertile and yet phosphorous crossroads between prog-rock and hard bop, and a year later fattened the mix by adding electric bassist Tim Lefebvre.
But Casting For Gravity represents McCaslin’s most dogged effort thus far to redefine fusion. Lefebvre is back, paired with powerhouse drummer Mark Guiliana for a potent yet still ruggedly jazz-centric rhythm section, the backbone of the quartet. Versatile keyboardist Jason Lindner occasionally steps out for a spirited solo, but is more influential in helping to determine the texture and in setting and coloring the mood. Along with producer David Binney, a longtime McCaslin ally who also sparingly adds synthesizer, they provide McCaslin with the ability to create grand gestures. There are stop-and-go grooves that escalate in intensity and fall back on themselves in dramatic tension-and-release; tonal layers that morph from liquid silk to electric sizzle and evaporate; rhythmic struts containing melodic swagger and impulsive outbursts.
There are also ambient, gossamer shadings and trip-hoppy segments and songs (most obviously on the title track, “Love Song for an Echo” and “Alpha and Omega”) to which McCaslin credits Richard D. James of Aphex Twin as his inspiration. While they impressively broaden the bouquet, the bolder, burning tracks like “Tension,” Binney’s “Praia Grande” and the shifting, suite-like “Losing Track of Daytime” feel more impressive for blending the brutish revelry of rock with the harmonic complexity and gymnastic improvisation of jazz. Or, put more simply, “blazing a trail.”