It is sometimes difficult, at a time when a jazz album receives a Grammy for best musical performance, to remember the long struggle that the music has had for legitimacy in the country of its birth or to imagine that there was a time when jazz was not an accepted part of the curricula of most music schools. Today most young jazz musicians come up through apprenticeship but are trained to play in all styles with equal conviction and with perfect technique. But such universal competence has its drawbacks in the countless well-trained anonymous players who seem to have everything except individuality. The masters whose solos they emulate recorded some of their best work in their late teens and early twenties, but now it takes longer than that to find one's own musical personality.
Saxophonist Donny McCaslin serves as a good example of how talented young players can rise above the crowd. He began his studies in his native Santa Cruz, California, where he found early success and then obtained a fellowship to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston — perhaps the most distinguished jazz finishing school in the world. He obviously stood out among his classmates, because upon leaving school he joined the group led by one of his best-known teachers, vibraphonist Gary Burton. After a few years on the road he moved to New York and eventually joined Steps Ahead, a popular fusion group that provided him with quite a bit of public exposure, if with little musical challenge. He played and recorded with various kinds of musicians, from jazz to pop and Latin, but he first gained critical attention for his solos on Purple, a 1998 recording by the Ken Schaphorst Big Band. Six years later he would also shine on a magnificent release by Maria Schneider's orchestra, Concert in the Garden.
McCaslin's versatility kept him employed, but he also sought more challenging avenues of expression. In 1994 he joined three other like-minded musicians to form the experimental avant-jazz quartet Lan Xan, an experience that undoubtedly helped him become a member of one of the most acclaimed groups in new music, the Dave Douglas Quintet.
At the same time McCaslin began to release his own CDs, and his playing on the two most recent releases is particularly strong. He has developed a personal approach that is strongly rooted in tradition, referencing elements of various tenor sax masters but without any overt imitation. Like many others of his generation, he is not constrained by generic boundaries; he is particularly fond of various kinds of Latin music and blends its sounds and rhythms with the sophisticated harmonies of contemporary jazz. He comes to the Kerrytown Concert House on Friday, March 21, with a very fine group of musicians, including saxophonist Steve Wilson.
[Review published March 2008]