Bowie, Blackstar, and Donny McCaslin Band: How the dame made his peace with jazz

Ryan Shafer, Publications Editor

Apr 11, 2017

Picture of the artists

The path that David Bowie took to his final album, Blackstar, was long and bumpy, according to Ryan Shafer, the Wex’s Publications Editor and drummer in the Columbus krautrock duo Alt. As we rev up for a performance on April 19 by an essential collaborator on the project, jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin, Ryan looks back on Bowie’s experimentations with jazz over his career and argues that working with McCaslin brought the late artist to a new level.

“Above and beyond a certain level of artistry, genre just falls away completely when someone can be that intense as an artist.”—Jason Linder, Rolling Stone (December 4, 2015).

In hindsight, David Bowie was not one to leave loose ends. I’m not just talking about his release of his final record, Blackstar, on January 8, 2016, his 69th birthday, just two days before he drew his last breath. Since the early 1970s, Bowie spoke of writing a musical, and he did just that with the eerily titled Lazarus—premiering it four decades later, in late 2015.

Throughout his career, Bowie also attempted to fuse jazz arrangements and approaches into his rock records. To me, he only got it right with Blackstar, in which saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band play a pivotal, Grammy-winning role. Before I go on about Bowie’s entanglement with jazz, I have to say: go see them when they’re in town. McCaslin and co. will be more than worth your while.

So, Bowie and jazz. Where to begin? With his first instrument: the sax. Growing up in Brixton south of London, he took lessons from Ronnie Ross, an old jazzer who once toured with Modern Jazz Quartet, played on the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle,” and later played sax on the Bowie-produced “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972). Equally important to Bowie’s formative years was Terry Burns, his mentally unstable half-brother, who introduced him to the liberating influences of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, and Eric Dolphy.

Like his peers Roxy Music, Bowie used the sax in his glam phase like it was used in the early days of rock—as a lead instrument, trading solos with guitar. You can hear Bowie honk away in “Changes” (1971), “Soul Love” (1972), and on Pin-Ups (1973), where he’s pictured on the sleeve with his baritone.

His sax work gets more interesting in the mid-1970s—as things do in general with Bowie—with the apocalyptic soul of Diamond Dogs in 1974 and Station to Station in 1975 (check his outro on “TVC15”) and on Low and “Heroes” in 1977. On the latter record he plays a gut-wrenching solo in “Neuköln,” inspired by a Turkish neighborhood outside Berlin. Both songs feature questing melodic lines played to great emotional effect in Eastern scales.

Here, arguably, is where the jazz bug took hold. Bowie’s music turned inward at the time, as he increasingly eschewed popular trends to find his own musical forms, and I think he returned to the sax in that enterprise of relocating himself.

He did it again in the 1990s. After a fairly terrifying stint of hit-making in the 1980s, Bowie wheezes all over Black Tie White Noise (1993) next to Lester Bowie of the esteemed Art Ensemble of Chicago. It’s a bit of mess; despite earnest, all-out solos (“I Feel Free”), some of the music comes off as wedding-reception techno, a weird conflation of the Pet Shop Boys and Duke Ellington. While largely sax-free, Bowie’s experimental 1995 record Outside makes strides by embracing collaborator Brian Eno’s systems of musical role-playing and group improvisation.

Despite these valiant attempts to incorporate a jazz element into his music, I think Bowie realized he would never have the technique to pull it off. Then comes 2014’s reinvigorating “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a big-band-meets-late-Scott-Walker murder ballad he did with jazz composer Maria Schneider’s orchestra. The track features an extended, guns-blazing solo by McCaslin, stuttering drum-and-bass drums by Mark Guiliana, and guitar by Ben Monder. It’s a thing of wonder, with Bowie singing odd, plaintive melodies not unlike his sax solo in “Neuköln.” Where previous dalliances with jazz felt “ornamental” with Bowie, this was “immersive,” as Guardian reviewer Alexis Petridis noted on its release.

And that's exactly how Blackstar was made: by an immersion into McCaslin's band and its dynamic. Over subsequent months, Bowie collaborated intensively with McCaslin, Monder, and Guiliana, as well as bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Linder, tracking vocals live in the studio with the band, actively encouraging improvisation and risk. Not for years had Bowie been that present with (or perhaps challenged by) a group of musicians. In a MOJO interview published in March 2016 (excerpted here), Blackstar producer Tony Visconti, a dear friend of Bowie’s for decades, called them “The Spiders from Jazz.”

Catch this gifted, committed group of players for yourself, and consider—along with the best rock-jazz and jazz-rock fusions—what genre matters when it comes to genius.

(Photo of Donny McCaslin and David Bowie by Jimmy King)