Year on, Bowie remembered as engaging until end
When David Bowie walked unassumingly into a cozyNew York jazz club to hear Donny McCaslin play, the saxophonist admits he wasn’t wellversed in the rock icon’s vast discography.
Bowie, who had a vision for the rhythmic underpinning of what would become his final album, met McCaslin in person a week later and soon emailed him to propose a collaboration.
Blackstar, Bowie’s 25th studio album, showed the legendary rocker experimenting until the end, crafting a style of hard jazz as his voice duels with the saxophone ofMcCaslin, an artist who has pushed the boundaries of electronica in jazz.
Blackstar was released to wide praise on Jan 8, 2016, Bowie’s 69th birthday. Two days later, he stunned the world when he died after an undisclosed battle with cancer.
“It’s been a year like none other for me,” McCaslin says at a coffeehouse in Greenwich Village. “I was so happy to see the critical acclaim, particularly for David. It was all so wonderful. And then he passed away and I was just devastated emotionally.”
In October, McCaslin and his band released their own album, Beyond Now, which was inspired by Blackstar. But he still struggles to listen to Blackstar, sayingheis“stillprocessing the feelings around it”.
Affable but with clear emotion when discussing Bowie, McCaslin had partied in high school to the rocker’s discopop Let’s Dance, but otherwise knewlittle of his work.
After he signed on for Blackstar, the 50-year-old California native listened to Bowie classics but soon stopped, realizing Bowie had chosen him for his own sound.
“I had an email exchange with him about it and I said something like, ‘Hey, I’m checking out some of your history.’ And he said, ‘Oh, what are you listening to?’”
McCaslin listed some of Bowie’s most famous tracks such as Life on Mars, Space Oddity and Changes.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘You know, that’s older stuff. I’m into some different stuff now.’”
Blackstar, whichwenttoNo1 on charts around the Western world, topped numerous critics’ lists for the best albums of 2016. But it did not earn a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, whose contenders include balladeer Adele’s blockbuster 25 and pop celebrity Justin Bieber’s Purpose.
“I like Adele — nothing against her — but look at the content of Blackstar, the artistic content. There is no comparison,” says McCaslin, a three-time Grammy nominee.
“It was pretty disappointing because it is such a work of art, Blackstar. But anyway, it’s out ofmy hands.”
McCaslin politely declines to say if he knewabout Bowie’s cancer, but says Bowie was “always super present” and warm.
Bowie would generally compose songs at his New York penthouse, he says, making demos with drum machines, synthesized bass, guitar and vocals and occasionally playing saxophone himself.
The rock star would walk to TheMagic Shop studio, where McCaslin would interact musically with him, improvising sax and adding harmony.
Bowie would make suggestions at night as he fine-tuned the lyrics. After his death, listeners have pored over the lyrics on Blackstar for meanings.
On Lazarus and the title track, Bowie reflects on death and appears to reference alter ego characters from his past. On Dollar Days — whose music, McCaslin says, emerged spontaneously in the studio — Bowie wistfully bids farewell to the evergreen trees of his native England, while he concludes on a note ofmystery and hope on I Can’t Give Everything Away.
McCaslin says he does not focus on the lyrics and instead responds to the emotion of Bowie’s voice as an instrument.
McCaslin downplays suggestions that Bowie designed Blackstar as a definitive final statement.
“I have read so much about that,” he says. “But my experience was that he was moving forward, in that he was talking about recording more music.”
While not intending to become a Bowie cover act, McCaslin says he will forever be influenced by him.
“At 68, he could have been doing anything, but instead he had us,” he says.
“He was not afraid to do that. You see someone at his level and this point of his career and that’s really inspiring.”