Jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin took a career-changing turn when big-band impressionist Maria Schneider introduced him to David Bowie. Schneider, who employs McCaslin in her orchestra, scored music for the innovative rock icon’s 2014 song “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” And when Bowie wanted to extend the collaboration, the busy Schneider suggested that he consider McCaslin’s quartet.
When Bowie dropped 2016’s acclaimed Blackstar (and died two days later after a private battle with cancer), his haunting swan song was awash in the tonal colors of McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, who collectively draw from the sonic and rhythmic fabric of electronica.
“He wanted to make a jazz record of sorts,” says McCaslin, 50, musing on why Bowie chose them for Blackstar’s core band. “Because what we’re doing is pushing the envelope musically and genre-wise, I would venture to guess that maybe he was attracted to that, because that’s the kind of artist he’s been throughout his career.”
Bowie sent demos of fairly complete songs to the musicians as a framework, says McCaslin, who lent woodwind harmonies and counterpoint while Lindner added keyboards. “It really felt cohesive and felt like a great match,” McCaslin says of sessions with the singer, who played some guitar (as did jazz player Ben Monder). “You know how it is with improvisers. A lot of what we do is we’re bouncing ideas off each other and communicating. That’s the magic that we’re looking for, what happens as we have this musical dialogue, and he stepped right into that.”
Although McCaslin says he wasn’t familiar with Bowie’s previous work apart from a handful of hits, mainly from 1983’s popular Let’s Dance, he was groomed early on to stretch as a musician. Growing up in Santa Cruz, California, the sax prodigy was peppered with musical influences, from the reggae acts that played around town to the Duke Ellington scores of his high school band to his father’s group, which mixed the American songbook with Latin jazz and funk. “All that sort of co-existed for me in a way,” McCaslin says. “It was a pretty broad musical DNA.”
His view widened with studies at Berklee and an apprenticeship in vibraphonist Gary Burton’s group in the late ’80s, followed by early years in New York playing folkloric music of the Americas. The saxophonist worked with composer-leaders as diverse as Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez and the eclectic trumpeter Dave Douglas in addition to Schneider. And he began absorbing electronic music at the suggestion of his combo’s longtime producer David Binney. “We’re exploring the intersection of improvisation and electronica,” McCaslin says, “but I still feel like it’s a natural extension of what I grew up with, just following the curiosity.”
His group has covered electronic artists on recent albums and follows suit on Beyond Now, released in October, with covers of Deadmau5, Mutemath and the Chainsmokers. “The tunes that strike me are ones [where] I can hear myself playing the melody,” says McCaslin, who plays the Sinclair on April 9 (on a shared bill with Kneebody, whose Nate Wood will also sub in on bass while Lefebvre tours with Tedeschi Trucks Band).
But the new album was dedicated to and inspired by Bowie, and it offers versions of the singer’s lesser-known “A Small Plot of Land” (with vocals by Jeff Taylor) and mostly instrumental “Warszawa,” a melismatic elegy that the band first worked up for a stand at New York’s Village Vanguard less than two weeks after Bowie’s death.
“We knew we wanted to record it right away, because it was an opportunity to channel a lot of emotion into a musical context,” McCaslin says, noting “a feeling of catharsis during that time.”
At the other end of the spectrum, McCaslin surges with forceful energy and bold tone, evoking his early sax influences like John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Michael Brecker, on originals like the opening track “Shake Loose.”
“I wanted to write a song with a sense of urgency from the beginning,” McCaslin says. “I remember my early years with Gary Burton and him talking a lot about the importance of getting right to the point with your improvising, trying to engage.”
The Donny McCaslin Group plays the Sinclair on April 9.