Donny McCaslin is really two people. When he talked to his audience Wednesday night, he was exceedingly polite and humble -- recalling how he'd dreamed about playing Scullers Jazz Club back when he was a student at the Berklee College of Music -- and endearingly nerdy, explaining that he and his wife were hooked on the short-lived sci-fi series "Firefly." But when he blew through his tenor saxophone, it was clear that he's full of tiger blood and Adonis DNA.
The 44-year-old California native is a study in contrasts. He looks like a thin Dwight Schrute, speaks like a schoolteacher, and plays the sax like a mixed martial artist. He and his quartet -- which included pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Scott Colley, and drummer Antonio Sanchez -- have one speed, one gear: go.
McCaslin, who went to Berklee on a full scholarship and joined Gary Burton's quartet while still in school, commands great respect among jazz musicians but is relatively unknown even among jazz aficionados. That ought to change, and it ought to change this year. "Perpetual Motion," his new acoustic-electric album, is in the early running for best-of-2011 lists.
Most of Wednesday's set was drawn from the disc, including the full-throttle opener, "Five Hands Down." Neck muscles bulging, McCaslin started with a warm, supple tone that exuded power and confidence, and evolved into furious circular runs and hot, violent outbursts. Sanchez egged him on -- and did all night -- with crisp, aggressive drumming. Eigsti, a 26-year-old wunderkind, is perfectly cast in this group. When McCaslin laid out, Eigsti took his place, turning in ridiculously challenging improvisations that set both hands blazing up the keyboard and crashing down with thick staccato chords.
"Energy Generation," McCaslin's ode to Tower of Power, may have presented itself as a fat slab of acoustic funk, but complexity hid beneath the simple structure. Sanchez played in everything from straight time to triple time, and served up polyrhythms and anti-rhythms when he soloed. Two songs later, McCaslin popped and squawked on a long sax-and-drums intro that had the two musicians playing against time until McCaslin resolved the tension by unleashing an angry litany of notes. Then he announced that the song, "Claire," was written for his baby daughter. "My daughter's got some energy, man," he said. "There are no ballads in our house."
It was radical. With fire-breathing fists, he deployed his ordnance to the ground. Indeed, he was bi-winning.
(Globe photo by Josh Reynolds)