BY STEVE VOLK One spring night in 2014, an aging British gentleman walked into Bar 55, a tiny Greenwich Village jazz club, where he listened to a band that honked and squalled in the most beautiful array of colors. The old man was so good at maintaining a low profile that he blended right into the tables and the crowd, and it was only later that people both inside and outside the bar were made aware of this show. David Bowie’s Blackstar, his final album, released just two days before he died in January 2016 was born, many years earlier, when his brother first turned him on to jazz and he bought himself a saxophone—the album representing a lifelong home and destination. But it only became a going thing after Bowie attended that show and reached out to bandleader Donny McCaslin, to ask if he would work with him on his next album.
The rest is a sad and beautiful piece of history—Blackstar serving as a fitting capstone to Bowie’s career because it sounded like, well, like David Bowie, without sounding like anything he’d done before. But this is a living history, which goes on living not only in the usual way we like to frame these things—In our hearts and memories! Or Whenever we play the record! This history is living in the heart of David Bowie’s last bandleader, McCaslin, who already had Grammys up on his shelf when the master came calling, yet found himself careening into entirely new creative territories ever since.
Beyond Now, McCaslin’s first album after Blackstar, served as a kind of summation of the Bowie experience—marrying up his unique brand of modern, “stadium jazz” with an art rock sensibility and even a couple of powerfully redone Bowie tracks, including the funereal “Warzawa,” which McCaslin somehow made even more epic. The new record, Blow, however is another thing altogether, and sounds a lot more like Bowie by sounding less like Bowie overall.
McCaslin has incorporated the Bowie colors into his palette, in other words, and is forging ahead. McCaslin, still inspired by the recording of Blackstar, and listening to alternative music at a voracious clip (he emailed me a list of the artists he was diving into most deeply) wanted that sense of collaboration again, so he enlisted a series of vocalists to make this new album, with no worries, he says (as you’ll see below), about what genre the music fits. The result is music as bracing and immediate as a killer pop song but hits the jazz pedal, hard, and winds up defying all categorization.
The Donny McCaslin Group performs at The Foundry at Fillmore Philly on Saturday January 12th as part of Philly Loves Bowie Week.
PHAWKER: I have to confess this first question comes from just by being a dad, I’ve got 6-year old fraternal twin boys, but what was it like growing up in a musical family? Having that opportunity to play music with your father on stage?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I grew up in a household of divorce, so I lived with my mother and I would see my father one day a week, usually on Sunday. From the beginning, my father would drive to my mother’s house during the week with his Wurlitzer Piano. I lived kind of in the country so he would carry it from the house up this dirt path around a circle of redwood trees up to a barn, and set up the Wurlitzer piano and then we would jam.
I was temperamental, sometimes we would play for five minutes and I’d get really frustrated, and we’d call it off. He never complained, he’d just take his piano back down the driveway. Other times we would play for hours, so he was really supportive from the beginning. He included me in his group when I was far too inexperienced to have any business playing with those guys. He was always supportive, even when I really struggled. It meant alot to me, it was a tremendous gift he gave to me and it’s one that I try to give to my children too.
PHAWKER: As you were coming up, were you listening to equal parts, rock and jazz? What were your interests and tastes?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I mean to go really deep, my first thing was John Philip Sousa, then it was Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, ACDC, and then it was jazz. Even when I was first getting started and getting enamored by jazz, I always listened to rock music and other things too. I was lucky that Santa Cruz was a small town but there’s a lot of culture happening there. So I was exposed to alot of reggae music growing up. I heard Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, The Mighty Diamonds…all those bands. My father’s band, they played a little bit of R&B/Funk, and then I used to hear Tower OF Power, and I’d go hear them live. So I was always interested in a broad thing, my sister was super into Aretha and The Motowns, I used to listen to that alot.
PHAWKER: I’m going to ask you about a couple specific songs, and I’ll start with one that you wrote, “Bright Abyss.” It’s such a wonderful track and I’m going to get into a mystical and sort of oddball question. That song for me it so correlates with a particular emotional experience. I’m curious to what degree you feel like you find these songs or they find you?
DONNY MCCASLIN: Music is emotion first, and as I listen to a song and I fall in love with it, it’s the emotion that hits me first. It’s not like this interval, or this chord, or sequence is what does it, it’s always emotion for me. So I think that’s something that when I’m working on writing a tune, and when things start to come together, it’s usually based around an emotional experience. Maybe an experience that I thought about that directly influenced the process, or it happens while I’m in the middle of it. Music is always emotional for me and it’s something that I try to exude in the music I put out there because it means so much to me.
PHAWKER: Could you describe the writing of that particular track? I’m curious as to how you landed on that song because the refrain feels like the end of something, but a glorious ending.
DONNY MCCASLIN: Part of it was that I was just coming out of the Black Star experience and David’s music was churning, and I was also listening to a lot of DeadMau5. With “Bright Abyss,” those two things were happening in my subconscious as I was writing. There was a moment where I was feeling the vamp, and then the pretty section where there’s an arpeggio. The vamp could’ve been inspired by something from Bowie certainly, but I was looking for what’s the next section. It reminds me of something in a DeadMau5 record, in a sense it’s this very bright uplifting thing after you have this dark, brooding angsty kind of vamp. For me sometimes it’s out of a sense of contrast where I’ve got this angsty thing but I’m looking for a release. When you have material and you like where it is, sometimes it’s not another section that you need, but it’s how you work with existing materials to continue the narrative. Then it releases into the chorus is like what you were saying the glorious opening, big singing kind of release, and feeling at one with everything.
PHAWKER: When you write something like that do you ever find yourself thinking “Wow, this is great,” or are you too close to it?
DONNY MCCASLIN: It can be the gambit of emotions. Sometimes I think, “This sounds great, I love this,” and it’s important to be fully invested emotionally into what’s happening when I’m writing it. There are other times when I’m writing something, and the voice of the oppressors will be thinking “I don’t know, maybe it’s not cool, maybe it’s not this” and often times it turns out not to be true. It is something that can be worked with it’s just the emotional state that I’m in at the moment. Sometimes I’m not sure about it then I get together and play it for other people. Falling in love with it is an important part of the process for me.
PHAWKER: To take readers through a small mini-narrative within this interview, do you remember with that track, “Bright Abyss,” did you work that out with other people or did you work through that song on your own and have that sense of completion then?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I wrote the first draft of the whole song then played it with people, and realized that there were a couple things near the end that needed to be adjusted. Frankly, it was after the chorus, I had a melody that didn’t need to be there. I played the song with the band without that melody and that’s when it started to feel like what it should be. What I bring is the song in its entirety, but then we chop it up as I play it in context of other people and I get a better sense of what’s working with the overall flow of how it unfolds.
PHAWKER: Let me ask you about a track you did with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Arbiters of Evolution. I have found myself over time visualizing as you go through that solo, it’s like there’s this central line and melody that you somehow remain tethered to like an astronaut hooked to a spaceship. When you’re collaborating with somebody and working on someone else’s song as opposed to your own, do you feel any sense of constraint? Are you aiming at the targey you think they’re looking for? Or do you feel completely free?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I try to work on a song and internalize it to the point where I can feel as free as possible. I’m trying to find all the connection points and how to move through them in the most seamless way possible, which just takes some time and effort on my part. Now in a certain way that song is a form where the band has backgrounds and I’m playing in and out of that, it’s going through different meters and keys then it lands on this tonality where it’s really just me and the rhythm section. There’s a form there that Maria has preordained and the orchestrations with the group that’s all their own. I feel that I prepare myself to be as free as possible but I also try to give myself over to the moment completely so I that I can play something that feels honest given the environment at the moment.
PHAWKER: I’ve been curious as to the Black Star experience, and how you feel it has changed your career, the direction, or the audience at your shows. Do you feel that you are reaching a broader audience now?
DONNY MCCASLIN: Yes, absolutely. When everything happened with Black Star it was really intense as you can imagine. The record came out, a lot of press attention, David’s passing and processing that emotionally, touring Beyond Now and playing some of David’s music; all of that was intense and I changed a lot just through the process of making Black Star. There was a different gradual epiphany that happened over the last couple years as I’ve been on the road a lot more and looking towards what was going to come next for me. When I think about David, I think about his fearlessness and his openness. Those are things that have always been apart of my aesthetic but seeing him embody that was inspiring. As I was on the road I started to feel a shift that was unexpected, I felt myself seeking out things to listen to that were different. It led me to a place that I would not have imagined 5 years ago.
PHAWKER: What did you listen to on the way to Blow? The music you might not have landed on in the past.
DONNY MCCASLIN: Dearhoof, Bon Iver, Sonic Youth, Rage Against the Machine?, Sufjan Stevens, ?Beastie Boys, ?St. Vincent, ?LCD Soundsystem?, FKA Twigs, ??Alt J, ?Here We Go Magic?, Grizzly Bear?, Autolux?, Laura Mvula, ?Colin Stetson, ?Paul McCartney, ?Lorde, ?Bowie, ?Mutemath, ?Fela
PHAWKER: It was fascinating to hear the demo of Bowie’s ‘Tis A Pity She Was a Whore, and then to hear what you guys did with it. He’s often portrayed as not much of a musician, but what’s so fascinating about the evolution of that song, is that you hear that demo and the whole song is there. Yet, you guys get a hold of it you raise it to a whole new level. Can you talk about the process of working on that song up from the demo?
DONNY MCCASLIN: That was the first song that David emailed me when we had this exchange and he asked if I wanted to record a couple songs with him.
There’s this pointillistic thing happening between the saxophone and the keyboards on his demo, like they’re chasing each other on this edgy rhythm. The demo was strong, all the elements were already there we just had to interpret it in our own way. It was the first take we did of that song and we were playing so hard that Mark dropped one of his drumsticks and I played so hard my mouth was sore. At one-point David yelled because he was excited too, and he left that in there. That’s Dave Bowie man, right on the edge walking up to the ledge and going for it.
PHAWKER: I wasn’t sure if the question would be too detailed but I was going to ask you where that yell came from because it sounded so genuine, and exultance in reaction to that very moment in the music.
DONNY MCCASLIN: It makes me feel emotional because it was so genuine. That’s one of the things looking back on that experience that was so beautiful. Seeing how happy he was making that record and the joy on his face at the results is an enduring memory for me.
PHAWKER: The song “Dollar Days” maybe the most nakedly emotional vocal Bowie ever did. For somebody who heard every note he had sung up to that point, it sounded new and fresh, haunting and vulnerable. Do you have any memories around that song?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I wasn’t around for the final vocal because he hadn’t finished the lyrics when we did it, and in fact that song was an outlier in the Black Star process. Most of the songs we had the demos, like ‘Tis A Pity She Was a Whore, but for that song we were literally in the studio and we recorded a couple things, he picked up an acoustic guitar and started playing. It happened so organically. Ten minutes later he’s on the piano with Jason, then he’s asking me about the saxophone part. We recorded a few takes of it and then we moved on.
PHAWKER: Do you know if we have heard everything from those sessions yet?
DONNY MCCASLIN: There is some stuff that have not come out yet, but I’m not sure what state it was left in. I don’t know if he finished the lyrics or final vocals on some of that.
PHAWKER: Was part of your odyssey from Black Star this desire to record with vocalists and other songwriters, and let them sing on your tracks?
DONNY MCCASLIN: I came to that realization along the way, I’m hearing something and it’s vocals. For me, I’ll make a record and on the record will be clues as to what is coming next. I can think back on a few of those and the Bowie track we did on Beyond Now with Jeff Taylor, “A Small Plot of Land,” felt exciting and that was the first clue to me as where this was going.
PHAWKER: A lot of jazz musicians are evangelists for the form and it seems like you certainly have that opportunity right now because you do get media attention and have other people coming to your shows, do you feel excited about that or think about that at all?
DONNY MCCASLIN: To me this is serious progressive music and it’s in-line with jazz because of that, but I’m just trying to follow where this is leading me and I don’t feel tethered to having to evangelize for one genre or another. Music is music.
PHAWKER: That’s very David Bowie of you.
DONNY MCCASLIN: Well, thank you. Bowie was a guy that if I learned anything from him it was not being afraid to break down borders or genre labels. In fact, the first day we were in the studio recording Black Star we were sitting next to each other and he says the equivalent of: “Hey, let’s not CARE what this is going to be categorized as, let’s just have fun and I want you to feel free to go for whatever you’re hearing.”
PHAWKER: Your new singles “Club Kidd” and “What About The Body” are explosive. They defy category.
DONNY MCCASLIN: That’s what I was thinking, I guess progressive music. However, the point is the process of realizing this musical dream for me and I’m so excited about the results. So I’m not worried about what it’s going to be called.