Salon FEBRUARY 9, 2017 - by Charles J. Gans


Saxophonist Donny McCaslin will never forget the last time he saw David Bowie. He got a hug from the rock legend as they listened to the finished version of his last album, Blackstar.

Bowie had unexpectedly chosen McCaslin's cutting-edge, New York-based jazz quartet to record Blackstar. After mixing and mastering the album, Bowie invited McCaslin to his lower Manhattan home for a listening session in November 2015.

McCaslin was sitting and listening to the music with his eyes closed when Bowie walked into the room and embraced him.

"I told him how much I loved the record and how beautiful it was to me to hear it... and just what a brilliant piece of art it is. And he was so happy that I was happy," McCaslin recalled. "The joy on his face was beautiful."

At the time, Bowie had talked about recording more songs and sitting in with McCaslin's band at an upcoming gig at the Village Vanguard jazz club. But Bowie died of liver cancer on January 10, 2016, just two days after Blackstar was released on his sixty-ninth birthday.

A year later, McCaslin said he's happy to see Blackstar nominated for multiple Grammys at Sunday's awards show, including best alternative music album. The song Blackstar is up for best rock performance and best rock song.

"I wish David was here to see all the love and appreciation for the record," said McCaslin, who plans to attend the Grammys. "It's been a privilege for me to meet so many of his fans this past year who love the record and whose lives he touched deeply with his art. I know for all of us in the band working with him was a transformative experience that we'll carry with us the rest of our lives."

McCaslin's band - with keyboardist Jason Lindner, electric bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana - channeled the grief they felt over Bowie's death through music. Just weeks later, in every set at the Village Vanguard, they played Warszawa, the hauntingly brooding anthem that Bowie co-wrote with Brian Eno for the 1977 album Low.

McCaslin says his band's new album Beyond Now, released in October, was very much influenced by their experience working with Bowie. It includes covers of two Bowie tunes - Warszawa and 1995's A Small Plot Of Land, featuring guest vocalist Jeff Taylor.

Beyond Now also features covers of tunes by Deadmau5, Mutemath and the Chainsmokers, reflecting the band's interest in "exploring this intersection of improvisation and electronica music," McCaslin said.

McCaslin says Bowie was into "exploring new territory and doing something cutting-edge" on Blackstar, and it was his quartet's willingness to push boundaries that attracted the rock legend. Tony Visconti, Bowie's producer, said McCaslin's band "was told to do their 'thing', and not think of it as a commercial rock record."

McCaslin received two of his three Grammy nominations for his soaring solos with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, and it was Schneider who brought Bowie to Greenwich Village's tiny 55 Bar in June 2014 to hear McCaslin's band.

McCaslin first worked with Bowie on the single Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime), for which Schneider won an arranging Grammy last year. Bowie began sending the saxophonist demos of his new songs and invited him to record Blackstar.

McCaslin says Bowie was "no diva type" and was "gracious, warm and humble," creating an environment that "brings out the best in those around him."

"It was really inspiring to see him at that stage of his career... his fearlessness as an artist just going for realizing his musical vision," the fifty-year-old McCaslin said. "That's the way I want to live and be when I'm sixty-eight years old."