Donny McCaslin felt a little shy when he first met David Bowie during a rehearsal of the latter’s “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” which would be released as a limited-edition single and on Bowie’s 2014 compilation album, Nothing Has Changed. The New York-based jazz saxophonist leads his own group, and he was working with longtime collaborator Maria Schneider during that session when he first encountered Bowie.
McCaslin, who pays homage to Bowie on his bold new album Beyond Now, says the first thing he noticed about the singer was his humanity. “He was generous," McCaslin says. "He was very present. He was very humble, wonderful and witty. And just super-cool. When he walked in the room, you felt him totally engaged in what was going on in the room and focused. So it felt really good to be around him, even if I felt a little shy at first or something. He was wonderful and very warm right from the beginning.”
McCaslin says that Bowie asked Schneider about working on another song together but she passed on it since she was working on her own album. Instead, she recommended McCaslin for the gig and played Bowie McCaslin’s album, Casting for Gravity, on which the saxophonist and his group explored the intersection of electronica music and improvisation. When writing tunes for Casting for Gravity, McCaslin says, he was influenced by Aphex Twin, Venetian Snares, Boards of Canada and Meshuggah.
Schneider eventually took Bowie down to the intimate Bar 55 in New York City to see McCaslin and his group in the summer of 2014, and not long after, Bowie began corresponding with McCaslin via e-mail. Through this exchange, Bowie sent the saxophonist music for what would be Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar, which was released two days before the singer passed from cancer at the age of 69.
Bowie recorded Blackstar during the first part of 2015 with McCaslin and his band, which features keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Giuliana. McCaslin said those sessions were great because there was a lot of chemistry, as they’d been working together for the last five years, around the same time McCaslin started delving into electronica.
“It felt natural,” McCaslin says of the Blackstar sessions. “It felt organic and seamless. He did provide the vision in terms of the songs, but he wasn’t telling us what to do in the studio. He wanted us because he wanted us doing what we do. The thing about Blackstar was that David came in and stepped right into that, provided the framework with his songs. But the dynamic was the same, and he entered into that and was doing the same thing: He was inspiring us with his conviction and his great singing. I think we were inspiring him. It just felt like a really good fit from the very first day.”
Not long after McCaslin and his group wrapped recording tracks for Blackstar in March 2015, the saxophonist began working on originals for what would become Beyond Now, slated for release in October on the Motema imprint.
"Some of the music from Blackstar was still swimming around, if you can imagine," McCaslin says, "because I’d really immersed myself in that music and it was still just...the whole experience was just kind of swimming around in my unconscious, I guess.”
The phenomenal title track on Beyond Now, which opens airy and ethereal before gradually building momentum and ferocity, was inspired by a Bowie song that was recorded during the Blackstar sessions but didn’t make it onto the album. McCaslin says that that having such an up-close encounter with Bowie’s writing style influenced his writing style.
“Sometimes it’s just the clarity of the ideas would be, well, just observing how his songs are built on simple ideas, but the compelling way of how they develop,” McCaslin says. “For me, sometimes, that’s really helpful to have a focus like that. Like one bass line, one melody, and build off that.”
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In addition to the five McCaslin originals on Beyond Now, there are covers of Deadmau5 and Mutemath as well as two Bowie covers, including “A Small Plot of Land,” (from 1995’s Outside) and “Warszawa” (from 1977’s Low), which McCaslin’s band starting playing during a week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard last January, about two weeks after Bowie's death.
“It was a really intense time,” McCaslin say. “We were talking about how we could pay tribute to him in the band, and Jason Lindner suggested we try ‘Warszawa.’ And we tried it at the sound check the first day of the Vanguard. It was a six-night run; two sets each night. We basically played it every set of every night. And it was really cathartic emotionally to play that tune, because it was a way to focus all the emotions and all the things that were going on for me personally, and I think for the guys in the band, and just New York City in general and all over.
"There was so much love for him and so many people grieving," he continues, "so for me personally, it was kind of a way to release some of that emotion and express it through a song and a song of his. So, once we started playing, it was like immediately, ‘I must record this because it was so meaningful to me.’”
The Donny McCaslin Group performs two sets at Dazzle each night (6 & 8 p.m.) on Tuesday, September 20, and Wednesday, September 21 with Jason Lindner, Mark Giuliana and Kneebody’s Nate Wood subbing for Tim Lefebvre, who is on tour with the Tedeschi Trucks Band. Tickets are $22.