INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
Downbeat MAY 2016 - by Phillip Lutz
DONNY MCCASLIN: FINAL MAGIC
David Bowie cultivated an air of mystery that surrounded him even in death. The evidence is all over his farewell album, Blackstar (Columbia) - most explicitly in his last recorded statement, the plaintively rendered, pointedly titled closer, I Can't Give Everything Away.
Still, it was disappointing that Donny McCaslin, who led the band on the album, had, in the wake of Bowie's passing, been told not to give anything away about the time he and the singer listened to the final version of this brilliantly realized work.
"I'm not supposed to talk about it," McCaslin said, his tone subdued and his gaze averted in a manner uncharacteristic of the physically imposing, normally expansive saxophonist.
Precisely who issued the gag order was unclear; perhaps it was a final flourish Bowie served up from the Other Side. Whatever the case, McCaslin's initial dismissal was not the last word on the listening session. Pressed on the matter, he recalled its date as a portentous Friday, November 13. He then delivered a morsel about its location:
"It was on Planet Earth."
Cheeky though that comment seemed, it hinted at something substantive. Bowie, after all, was the otherworldly Starman whose assessment of Planet Earth, viewed from a tin can floating in space, was that it was irredeemably blue. In that context, it was a revelation - and, for his fans, a consolation - that, as time was running out, he had found his emotional grounding on terra firma.
"He was so pleased with the record and how it had come out, and that is what sticks with me," McCaslin said, his voice suddenly robust as he rose from the kitchen table in his Brooklyn apartment. "That day, listening to it all, and talking to him, he was just thrilled."
On January 10, less than two months after the listening session and barely a month before the conversation in McCaslin's apartment, Bowie was gone at age sixty-nine. But for McCaslin, forty-nine, and his band - Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Mark Guiliana on drums, augmented by Ben Monder on guitar - the collaboration's impact is just starting to be understood.
"Working with him was a life-changing experience for me," McCaslin said.
The experience had roots in the early 1990s, when, not long after arriving in New York from Boston, where he had attended Berklee, McCaslin joined Maria Schneider's big band. On Monday nights at Visiones, the long-departed haunt on Macdougal Street in Greenwich Village, the band was making a name for itself, with McCaslin's tenor a main attraction.
Over the years, the relationship between McCaslin and Schneider deepened and, on June 9, 2014, it opened a door. Bowie, a fan of Schneider's, invited her, along with a coterie from the band - McCaslin, Guiliana, trombonist Ryan Keberle and bassist Jay Anderson - to the Euphoria Studios in New York's Chelsea to workshop his planned single, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).
Released as the lead single from Bowie's compilation album Nothing Has Changed (Columbia), Sue earned Schneider a Grammy in the category Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals. At its core is a wailing McCaslin, who, on Grammy night (February 16), was also basking in both a nomination for Best Improvised Jazz Solo, on Arbiters Of Evolution, from Schneider's The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare), and praise for a new version of Sue on Blackstar.
More than eighteen months earlier, on June 1, 2014, McCaslin and the group were playing Greenwich Village's 55 Bar when Bowie, ever the man of mystery, slipped in. Tipped off by Schneider, who was with him, he was doing reconnaissance for Blackstar. What he heard in that Christopher Street basement - and obviously liked - was the group casually working its way through material from Fast Future (Greenleaf), the saxophonist's third recorded dive into the world of electronica.
After eight albums as a leader of acoustic bands, a skeptical McCaslin had, following discussions with trusted producer and sometime sideman David Binney, come to view the adoption of an electronic aesthetic favorably. "Before I make a record we usually get together and talk," McCaslin said. "He suggested, 'You've got to make an electric record.' My initial reaction was, 'Maybe yes, maybe no.' But the more I talked about it, the more I thought it was a good idea."
The talk yielded Perpetual Motion (Greenleaf). Released in 2011, it balanced a variety of influences, from polyrhythmic funk and refracted Memphis blues to a kind of impressionism. It also offered evidence that McCaslin's nascent interest in electronics would be nurtured by Lefebvre and Guiliana, who were joined on the album by Antonio Sanchez on drums and Adam Benjamin and Uri Caine on keyboards. Binney played alto saxophone on one tune. The album's promise prompted a similarly oriented follow-up after McCaslin was urged to produce one by trumpeter Dave Douglas, with whom he had, in 2011, been sharing what became his rhythm section - Lefebvre, Guiliana and Lindner - at the Jazz Baltica Festival in Germany. That concert presented material from Perpetual Motion and Douglas' Keystone (Greenleaf).
"Dave said, 'You should go further into electronica territory,'" McCaslin recalled. "I totally agreed. I was feeling that myself, and the end result was Casting For Gravity." The album, also on Greenleaf, completed the electronic palette by dropping into the mix Lindner's atmospherics, courtesy of a wall of synthesizers.
Compared with Perpetual Motion, 2012's Casting For Gravity made a bigger impression in the music press, and it ultimately led to last year's Fast Future - a deeper, more layered exploration of electronica's possibilities. Offering a panoply of dance-beat strategies tempered by an intermittently softer sound, it drew from source material like Los Angeles-based Baths' No Eyes, which McCaslin, conjuring a fusion of his overdubbed horns and Binney's wordless vocals, transformed into one of his most striking and sensitive covers.
"We wanted something a little more lyrical and deeper into the electronic realm," McCaslin said.
Fast Future indeed points to a future, McCaslin said, mentioning the showpiece 54 Cymru Beats in this regard. In McCaslin's treatment, this tune by English artist Aphex Twin (AKA Richard D. James) becomes a frenetic yet curiously focused exercise in extreme but purposeful technique, dazzling with its multiphonic cries and intervallic leaps played out in an open harmonic structure.
"It's a good example," he said, "of where the music is going now. It's very electro. I'm getting different sounds on the saxophone. And - I hesitate to say this - it's almost like bebop, though it's very different."
The invocation of bebop, an idiom whose demands have always sat squarely within McCaslin's wheelhouse, is well placed in relation to 54 Cymru Beats - referring, in his words, to the "virtuosity of the lines" and the "heavy life" of the melody. "It gets you all around the instrument. The challenge for me is, How do I improvise over that in a way that feels right, considering how jagged the melody is?"
Challenge, writ large, is clearly what's driving McCaslin to a deeper consideration of electronica, even as he avoids plugging in. "The idea is to keep pushing the envelope, for me not to stay in my comfort zone as an improviser," he said. "I'm still playing acoustically, not using effects. But it's pushed me a lot to get into some different areas on the horn. I feel like we're exploring this intersection of electronica music and improvisation."
That territory is plainly where Bowie wanted to be in his final effort. "Let's face it," McCaslin said, "we're not a straightahead group. We're playing some edgy stuff. We're pushing boundaries, and my overall sense is that he was into that."
Bowie, whose passion for jazz started with bandleaders like Stan Kenton and Gil Evans (Schneider's mentor), no doubt saw McCaslin's group as a tool for advancing the music. Such a tactic would have been of a piece with his "collagist" mode of operation, said saxophonist Lenny Pickett, who worked with Bowie on two albums - Tonight (EMI), from 1984, and Heathen (Sony), from 2002 - and performed with him on his Serious Moonlight tour in 1982.
"David figured out who he'd want to cast and then allowed the people to contribute the way they'd normally contribute," said Pickett, the longtime music director of the Saturday Night Live Band and a onetime member of the San Francisco Bay group Tower of Power, which McCaslin, a Bay Area native, cited as an early influence.
In figuring out whom he wanted to cast, Bowie by all indications left little to chance. His personnel scouting extended beyond a visit to 55 Bar. Lindner said that Bowie mentioned having seen YouTube videos of the keyboardist's Now vs. Now project. And, he said, Bowie had urged Guiliana to bring the sensibility of his Beat Music project to bear on Blackstar.
For his part, McCaslin said that Bowie had praised the group's treatment of both 54 Cymru Beats and a piece from Casting For Gravity, Binney's Praia Grande, pointing on the latter to a hard-driving vamp whose intensity is echoed if not amplified throughout Blackstar. That intensity, Lefebvre said, reflects in large measure the in-studio exhortations of Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer and a constant control-room presence.
"Tony," he explained, "would say, 'Make that more aggressive.'" The band responded with bursts of collective energy.
Nowhere is that more evident than on the Blackstar version of Sue. The song offers some of the album's most forceful interplay between the rhythm section and Bowie's voice. Monder's Fender Stratocaster - an instrument he said he "rarely brought out of the house" - enjoys a potent airing, as do Lindner's Minimoog Voyager, MicroMoog and Prophet synthesizers.
But among the seven cuts that made the album - perhaps an equal number, according to band members, were recorded and set aside - Sue, McCaslin said, proved the trickiest to execute, owing to the specter of Schneider's version looming in the background.
"David and I were talking about how we could make it different," McCaslin said. "We were trying to find the right vibe and right form. I remember saying a version featuring his voice, bass and drums - just stripping away everything - would be really cool. We tried that - keeping the form open - and it didn't really work."
After experimenting, they tried a more tightly woven sound and then loosened the weave. McCaslin took Schneider's score, reduced it for clarinet and flutes and, with a bit of editing, produced to great effect the final charts. "I feel like the spirit is really there," he said. "It's a compelling version of the song that's quite different from hers."
The other outlier was Dollar Days, the only tune, apart from the previously recorded Sue, for which Bowie did not provide a demo. Consequently, the experience of processing the material proved more intimate. "We sketched out a little lead sheet and just started to do it," Monder said, adding that the band untangled the knottiest problems along the way.
Dollar Days revealed itself to be one of the more contemplative tunes in the program. With the band gathered in the studio, Bowie strummed guitar, sang what he had of the lyrics and sat with Lindner at the piano, laying out in considerable detail a set of chords whose outline remained largely intact throughout the process.
At one point, rhythmic issues came to the fore, Guiliana said. "It was like, 'What should the groove be like in the verse, how should the bridge go?'" James Murphy, leader of LCD Soundsystem, who was on hand as something of a facilitator, stepped up and suggested that Guiliana use tom-toms.
"David said, 'Yeah, yeah,'" Guiliana recalled. "That was a moment where we were very collaborative, searching together, egoless. That's what ended up on the record. It took us from nothing to a realized take in a day."
Many moments of real-time creation popped up, not least on the multipart title track. A critical issue was maintaining a seamless flow despite the parts' stark juxtaposition of styles. The musicians created the raw material in discrete sections on the spot, and the flow was fashioned during sequencing and mixing in post-production.
"There weren't a lot of takes," Monder recalled. "David said, 'What's going to happen is we're going to do a section and it's going to dissolve and morph into the next section,' which was more like a pop tune, 'then it's going to morph back into the original thing with a stronger beat.' We just sort of improvised a dissolution of the first part, and had everything trail off. Then we recorded the second section immediately after that separately."
The penning of lyrics called up Bowie's most inscrutable side. On Girl Loves Me, most notably, he offhandedly warned of mystifying words ahead before introducing bits of futuristic argot from Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Concocted nouns like "vellocet" (a fictional chemical) and verbs like "viddy" (to see) turned heads but were so well aligned rhythmically that the song proceeded without a missed beat.
At times, the lyrics were mystifying as much for their outré quality as their obscure meaning. Also on Girl, a form of a four-letter word that repeats may prove problematic for some mainstream presenters. But it is rendered so urgently - and, like the Clockwork lingo, executed with such exquisite rhythmic logic - that it demands to be heard. By all indications, Bowie was beyond caring about issues of propriety.
"It was all about the art for him," McCaslin said. "He was living the art. He had placeholder lyrics. As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words. He was fully engaged in the creative process." Bowie was engaged even when band members were in casual mode. As they were kicking around ideas during a jam on Lazarus, McCaslin said, Bowie overheard an arpeggiated figure Lefebvre had cooked up. "He said to Tim, 'I like that, can you do that some more?'" Lefebvre responded, and the figure became the starting point for a felicitous intro and outro. "He quickly identifies what he wants, what he likes, and we develop it."
Time, at an obvious premium, was not wasted. Nor was space in the intimate quarters of the Magic Shop in New York's SoHo, which closed in March. "It's drums, keyboard, bass, David," McCaslin said. "I'm in this booth facing straight ahead where David is. Tony's there and it's very like, 'OK, let's go.' We'd play through it once, maybe, and he'd be singing and maybe we'd rehearse and we'd start with takes. It was pretty much first, second, third take. Then we'd all go and listen. If there were any drummer-bass fixes, which there hardly ever were, that would happen first. Then maybe David would do some vocal things. He never had anything written out."
McCaslin said that Bowie proved especially adroit at form and structure; the frameworks he created on his demos largely held throughout the recording process, as did the rudimentary chords and horn parts. "That being said," he explained, "he was totally open to our input. He encouraged us to essentially go for whatever we were hearing.
"It was never a thing where, 'You guys lay it down and I'll come and overdub the vocal.' He was always in there singing with us, and that was great because his energy - his voice was really strong - and his conviction were always really there. When I listen to it, it's a David Bowie record - those are his songs. But it's also us playing. I'm not trying to do anything other than what I'm hearing."
Because Bowie was spending part of his evenings working on his acclaimed play Lazarus, the hours for recording sessions were a circumscribed 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., during which the band typically produced two songs a day. For jazz musicians used to knocking off long sets in a day, that might seem modest. But the pace never slackened. And Bowie, who in the morning regularly offered comments on the previous day's output, must have been listening at night after he finished working on his play.
For a week each in January and February and three or four days in March, after which Monder and McCaslin each spent a day on overdubs, Bowie and McCaslin were in constant email contact. McCaslin furiously wrote charts. And while the emails fell off after the period of recording, they picked up again in the fall as the album release neared. That was on January 8, two days before Bowie died.
"When it was happening," McCaslin said, "he was all the way in."
While Bowie might have been racing against time on the Blackstar project, basic elements of his work process mirrored those from Pickett's days. The demo stage had proved "a little secretive," but, once in the studio, "there was a collaborative aspect to it, a fluid thing going," said Pickett, a member of the Borneo Horns, a breakaway unit formed with the other saxophonists on the Serious Moonlight tour, Stan Harrison and Steve Elson.
"It's not like doing a Miles Davis album, where the charts are brought in and everybody does what Gil [Evans] wrote," he said. "It's maybe more like one of those Miles quintet albums, where he's telling everybody what he wants as they go along, but Herbie's still being Herbie, Wayne's still being Wayne.
"It's awesome that this has happened for Donny."
McCaslin and the members of the band generally agreed that they would, for the foreseeable future, refrain from playing music from Blackstar. The exception would be a twenty-artist tribute to Bowie at Radio City Music Hall on April 1 at which they planned an instrumental version of Lazarus. Visconti was scheduled to play bass, said Linder, who added that he would take on the harmony parts with his synthesizer while McCaslin handled the melody and solo duties. Beyond that, McCaslin has signed with the Motéma label, and a new album is slated for October. He's currently composing songs for the project.
As he continues to process the Blackstar experience, he is noticing its impact on his material: "Sometimes I'll notice how there's a bass line and a descending part in the harmony and a melody on the top - something simple but so compelling - and it's a reminder to me not to overwrite but to write what I'm hearing."
Eager to illustrate the point, he migrated quickly from the kitchen to the bedroom, where he positioned himself in front of a broken-in Wurlitzer electric keyboard, much, he said, like the one his musician father used back in the day in Santa Cruz. Reading from a lead sheet, he played a work-in-progress that had the Bowie-like traits he had described.
"The tune should be called Bowie," he said.
Prominently displayed among the sheets of paper arrayed on McCaslin's stand was music for Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring, one of the pieces, he said, from which he derived some small consolation after Bowie's death. "Blackstar comes out, I download it, David passes and I can't listen to it," he said. "I felt kind of unmoored, I was in this weird space."
Slowly, he said, he has begun to come out of it, in part by remembering the example set by Bowie, who carried on audaciously despite - or, perhaps, because of - the prospect of his final leave-taking of Planet Earth.
"There was his fearlessness and his envelope pushing," McCaslin said. "He was living life to the fullest, evolving and changing and growing. That reinforces the feeling as an artist to keep going for what I'm hearing and be true to that."