Donny McCaslin and his then band Perpetual Motion was a great attraction already in 2012, when the organisers of JazzFest Brno presented him as a foreign star who was to bring his energetic, jazz/funk music to Brno. This year was totally different. Czech audiences know McCaslin well from his concert at Colours of Ostrava and other appearances here, but mainly as the man who worked with David Bowie on his last, critically acclaimed, album Blackstar. Though Bowie’s shadow dogs McCaslin, he doesn’t try to escape it. His album Beyond Now (2016) includes his own version of the singer’s dark piece Warszawa from 1976 and the twenty-years-younger song A Small Plot Of Land (with singer Jeff Taylor). And Bowie could be heard (though as an addition) at the Brno concert too.
Donny McCaslin is first and foremost a star with his own repertoire, with music mixing jazz, rock and electronic pop. He was first nominated for a Grammy in 2004 for his instrumental solo in the song Bulería, Soleá y Rumba from the Marie Schneider orchestra album, followed by two nominations in the same category in 2013 and 2015. But as the saxophonist showed us in Brno, solos aren’t his only skill. He showed us his ability to fuse together different genres, to cooperate in a band, but mainly to be a good entertainer. Donny McCaslin is no simple showman; music is always the primary thing for him. But the unique curves made by his tall, slim figure holding his instrument, which go well with the architecture of the Sono Centrum, raised the concert to the level of a visual experience as well. Though the man with the saxophone dominates the podium, the other band members were not to be outdone. The singing drummer Nate Wood was a gem to see with his fast strike sequences and his imaginative changes of emphasis on the darker drums or the piercing cymbals. Piano player Jason Lindner filled the air with cosmic sounds and the tones of the electrical and acoustic piano and moved the resulting impression far beyond ordinary jazz.
The clever play with the rhythm and the combination of “almost electronic” drums and piano, together with the brilliantly executed dynamics, were a good contrast to the human (and in some of the short speeches between songs sympathetic and friendly) appearance of the frontman and his well-executed work with the breaks. You didn’t have to know the names of the songs (with the exception of Beast, inspired by the U.S. presidential elections last year, which was useful) to fully enjoy McCaslin’s musical stories. It was visible from the overview that though he builds on his jazz roots, which he gained as a leader of smaller bands and as a member of one of the world’s best big-bands, working with a great rock star was a huge inspiration for him. “I see music differently, I see composing differently”, is what he supposedly said after his collaboration with Bowie.
With all due respect to the accomplished Cohen, McBride, Rosenwinkel and Barron, whose concerts we have yet to see, I feel like the greatest attraction of this year’s JazzFest will be the charismatic McCaslin. The support, experienced pianist and teacher of Czech origin Pavel Wlosok (who has lived for several years now in the United States), was thus rather overshadowed. But his current project with the American saxophonist Rick Margitza (including guest Lukáš Oravec on the flugelhorn) gave us brilliantly executed mainstream jazz. Though it was a pleasant first half to the evening, the second half made us completely forget it. By the way, Donny McCaslin recorded the saxophone for five songs on Wlosok’s album Alternate Reality in 2013. Thus, their appearance on the same stage was simply logical and it is just a pity that they didn’t get to play together in Brno too.
Pavel Wlosok Trio & Rick Margitza, Donny McCaslin Group. Brno, Sono Centrum, 15 March 2018.