Review: David Bowie Gets Jazzy on New Album Blackstar

Nearly a year ago, David Bowie made an unannounced trip to the intimate 55 Bar in New York City’s West Village to hear an innovative jazz group led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and featuring keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana. Bowie dug what he heard, and not long after seeing the musicians, he invited them to play on his new album, Blackstar, which is slated for release this Friday, January 8 — also Bowie’s 69th birthday.

While Bowie recruited these four musicians (as well as guitarist Ben Monder), who each excel at jazz (but are also well-versed in other genres), Blackstar is by no means a jazz album. It's a far cry from, say, Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age, from 2012, which included 1920s jazz-style renditions of Roxy Music and Ferry’s solo work. No, the seven tunes on the 45-minute Blackstar don’t swing.

But there are elements of jazz (or maybe call it future jazz), including some potent solos by McCaslin throughout a good portion of the disc. And sometimes putting jazz players into a rock setting can achieve exciting results; in Blackstar’s case, it puts Bowie in a slightly different context, and he sounds renewed.

Blackstar’s title track, which feels like a ten-minute, three-movement suite, starts off sounding vaguely like Björk’s “Hunter,” but with more of a Middle Eastern flavor, especially when McCaslin solos after a few minutes. Halfway in, the song breaks into a soul groove à la Al Green before returning to the Middle Eastern motif. It’s the ideal song to pull the listener into Bowie’s new world on Blackstar.

While the title track eases you into the Blackstar journey, “’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” is a potent up-tempo cut fueled by Guiliana's muscular drum work and McCaslin’s crisp and punchy solos during the breaks. “Lazarus,” on the other hand, is a bit slower but equally effective, with Monder’s textural guitar work plus more of McCaslin’s tenor work.

The odd-metered “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” borders on prog-jazz, and this re-recorded version is grittier than an earlier version Bowie released as a single in late 2014 that featured the Maria Schneider Orchestra, also a highly renown jazz ensemble. The stunning acoustic-guitar-driven “Dollar Days” might be the most Bowie-esque tune on Blackstar.

As a whole, Blackstar works particularly well in scope, given the individuality of each track, and recruiting these jazz players was a brilliant move. So if you dig the musicianship on Blackstar, don’t stop with this album. Check out McCaslin’s last two releases, Fast Future and Casting for Gravity, Lindner’s Now vs. Now, Guiliana’s duo with pianist Brad Mehldau (Mehliana: Taming the Dragon) and Monder’s new textural/ambient ECM album, Amorphae.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon