Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Music: Donnie and Bowie, a young jazzman's contribution to the pop legend's swan song

- from The Guardian

Nine months have passed since David Bowie’s death, but his last collaborator, Donny McCaslin, still has to pause when he talks about it. “There’s so much emotion,” McCaslin says, the words catching in his throat. “It’s devastating.”

McCaslin speaks about his experience with Bowie sitting in 55 Bar, the micro Greenwich Village jazz club where Bowie first heard the musician perform back in 2014. Shortly after seeing that show, Bowie chose McCaslin’s band to back him on his final album, the acclaimed, jazz-fusion leaning Blackstar.

McCaslin vividly remembers the night Bowie came to the club to check him out. “I was definitely nervous,” the saxophonist said. “I glanced up and saw where he was sitting. I just tried to keep myself grounded and not think about it. But the pressure was on.”
Even so, McCaslin says his band “were going for it. It wasn’t a watered-down version of what we do. Afterwards Bowie said: ‘Wow, that was really loud!’”

Clearly, he liked it that way, because a few days later, Bowie emailed the musician to ask if his band would work with him on what would be his last release, an album that turned out to be one of his most adventurous. The experience of creating music with Bowie proved so deep, and its aftermath so jarring, that McCaslin decided to turn his new album, Beyond Now, out 14 October, into a tribute. It includes several transformative covers of Bowie songs, including Warszawa from Low, and A Small Plot of Land from Outside, along with a song McCaslin wrote inspired by a piece Bowie left off Blackstar. (That track, plus two other cuts that didn’t make that release, will come out on 21 October on the cast album from the musical Bowie wrote in his last year, Lazarus).
McCaslin knew his Bowie salute had to be special. “I wanted the depth of my experience with him, and the impact on my life, to be reflected,” he said. “I was digging deep on every take to get the gravitas I felt it should have.”

For Blackstar, that meant giving McCaslin’s band nearly free rein. “He set the tone from the beginning,” the saxophonist said. “He told us: ‘Whatever you hear, I want you to go with it.’ He said ‘great’ to everything.”
At the same time, McCaslin couldn’t tell anyone outside of his immediate family about the project. Bowie had the band sign non-disclosure agreements, the better to keep the album a secret until he was ready to release it. At the same time, Bowie was aware he had cancer, which was an even more closely guarded secret. McCaslin politely demurs when asked if he knew the star was sick during the recording process. “He was so private,” he said. “I want to honor his wishes that we not talk about it.”

At the time, McCaslin wasn’t even sure the music he cut with Bowie would come out or, if it did, how much of his band’s efforts would make the ultimate cut. It wasn’t until late last fall, when a British journalist asked to interview the musician for a story about a new Bowie album, that he found out about its impending release and heard its final form.

On 8 January, Blackstar finally appeared. Two days later came news of Bowie’s death and, suddenly, everyone wanted to talk to McCaslin. “I wasn’t prepped,” he said. “I didn’t know what to say.”
He gave a few interviews, talking only about the music. Then, journalists started to get nosier about the details of Bowie’s illness and demise, and McCaslin shut down. He also began to fully experience his grief. “We had this amazing connection,” he said, “and then he was gone.”

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