David Bowie & Donny McCaslin Quartet, Blackstar

Blackstar has been called David Bowie's "death album" (several of its songs allude to death, he died of cancer two days after its release), but that makes it seem like a grisly novelty number when, in fact, it's a masterpiece—and, for purposes of this blog, a work of jazz-rock fusion that, unlike many stabs at the genre, truly fuses the two idioms, staying true to both, creating something new in the process, rather than watering them down in a muddy swamp.

The album is a dense kaleidoscope of sonic effects, eerily layered, unflaggingly propulsive—on the ballads, it's breathtakingly lovely—yet rooted in jazz drumming, jazz bass walks, with a jazz tenor saxophone often providing counterpoint.

The saxophonist is Donny McCaslin, alongside his regular quartet—drummer Mark Guiliana, pianist Jason Lindner, and bassist Tim Lefebvre, with occasional stand-ins by guitarist Ben Monder—with, of course, Bowie singing and sometimes playing guitar.

While some parts were layered in later, the quartet and Bowie played all the tracks live in the studio, interacting, even improvising, more in the jazz tradition than most modern studio rock.

Bowie originally wanted to do with the album with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and, in fact, last year, he released a single, "Sue" (which is also on the album), with Schneider's arrangement and nearly her whole orchestra doing backup. In the end, though, Schneider begged off, having her own project to finish (that turned out to be The Thompson Fields, her own masterpiece), and suggested that Bowie check out the quartet led by McCaslin, who has long been playing in her orchestra (as has Monder).

Schneider took Bowie to see the quartet at the 55 Bar, a small club in the West Village, and several days later he sent McCaslin an email asking him to join him on his new album.

In a phone conversation a couple weeks ago, McCaslin told me that Bowie was very much the project's leader. (He was a musician of so many styles, genres, and inventions, why shouldn't he have mastered jazz idioms as well?) Except for two of the album's seven tracks, the melodies, harmonies, song forms, even the basic horn parts were all there in the demo tapes that Bowie sent him at the project's beginning.

But, he said, it was also very much a collaborative process. McCaslin layered horn parts on "Girl Loves Me" and "She's a Whore," and added a harmony underneath "Lazarus." During the rehearsal for "Lazarus," Lefevbre started off with a chordal bass run, Bowie said "I like that," and the band together crafted a new intro around it. "Dollar Days" originated with Bowie simply picking up a guitar and playing a brand-new tune, which the rest of the band riffed on. "It just happened," McCaslin said. "I'd forgotten about it, until I heard the record."

Throughout the sessions, which went on for several hours a day, Bowie's attitude was "Go for it, feel free to take chances." McCaslin says, "He said this explicitly. We always started with the demos, but things developed from there."

McCaslin, who's 50 and a faculty member at the New England Conservatory, has been a staple on the New York jazz scene for a quarter-century, playing with Gary Burton, Gil Evans, Danilo Perez, and Dave Douglas, as well as Maria Schneider's orchestra—and he's been the leader on a dozen albums, the last several on Douglas' Greenleaf Music label. He has a hard-edged, hard-driving sound, with a special zest for syncopated rhythms, and it's about time—from a jazz follower's angle, it's not the least of Bowie's legacies—that he's finally getting his due.

Martern Aller Arten's picture

Like most music enthusiast, I enjoy a wide range of musical genres. When I learned of the release of this album, I was very excited to give it a listen. From the first track, I found it difficult listen to. Being a fan of Bowie's Music in the highlight of his career, maybe I was expecting something different. But after his death, and hearing his peers explain his legacy to the music world, Bowie was always different. I will admit there are many landmark recordings that have taken several years for me to fully understand and appreciate. The way I process music has a lot to do with my mood, atmosphere, and other music that I am gravitating towards at the moment. I look forward to the day that I can fully understand and appreciate this recording. The artist may pass away, but the music never dies.

Allen Fant's picture

Great review as always, FK.

mauidj's picture

First listen. I didn't get it. Nice but....very dark.
Second listen......nice sax....jazzy stuff....hmmmmm!
Third listen........Mr. Bowie you are a genius!

A man of so many faces and facades.
Changing direction as the wind.
But always adding to whatever he embraced. New or old. It always became his.
I cannot think of another performer who (re)invented so many personnas and musical styles.

Everything about this album exudes class. The LP packaging is reminiscent of the glory days of vinyl. No expense spared there. The musicians are, as always, at the top of their field and in top form.

And then there is Bowie. Saying goodbye to me. (and you)!
It hurts in such a beautiful way.
Only he could have done it.

RIP David Jones. You will always be here..........