Why Donny McCaslin Was David Bowie’s David Bowie

Among the lessons David Bowie taught the world of pop music was that backup can make the leader, which he proved by flipping gender specificity into the term “leader.” Bowie established his reputation as a fiercely original creative force not only performing his own sonic, sexually adventurous art-pop, but also reimagining other behind-the-scenes acts. He took a founding group of folk-rockers called Mott the Hoople and turned them into glamorous stars with “All the Young Dudes,” the scintillating rock anthem he wrote and produced for the band in 1972. did much the same around the same time for Lou Reed, co-producing the single “Walk on the Wild Side” and the Transformer album that took Reed out of the Velvet Underground cult and onto the pop charts; and he had nearly as much success with Iggy Pop, recasting the punky singer for the Stooges as an icon of transcontinental rock intellectualism.

Over his five-decade mercurial career, Bowie has implemented many of his famous transformations as a performer through strategies of association and collaboration. He was tactical and generally wise in his selection of creative partners: Brian Eno for moo, Hero, and Tenant, the triptych of soundscape masterpieces from his “Berlin period”; John Lennon for “Fame, the “plastic soul” single that was his first number one hit in America; and Bing Crosby for the special Christmas duo that turned him into a family entertainer. He lingered less fruitfully on a few occasions, prancing with Mick Jagger in their gay-uncle duet video for ‘Dancing in the Street’, and flattering his lesser on ‘Falling Down’, a karaoke night mistake with Scarlett Johansson on his Tom Waits covers album.

Because what he knew without a doubt would be his last album, Black Star, Bowie made one of his savviest collaborator choices: Donny McCaslin, the frontman of a well-respected New York jazz band with a subtly retro art-rock feel. McCaslin had been recommended by Maria Schneider, the jazz composer and bandleader, with whom Bowie recorded a majestic, ethereal single and accompanying video, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” in 2014. Bowie asked Schneider to work with him on additional songs, but she ended up with a new project, the album Thompson Fields (which has since been nominated for a Grammy and which I named best album of 2015). Schneider suggested Bowie check out the McCaslin-led quartet, who play in his orchestra, and Bowie went to listen to his band at the tiny 55 Bar on Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village.

McCaslin has been a notable presence in New York jazz circles since the early 1990s, when he played with Gil Evans as well as in the fusion band Steps Ahead, and began his long association with Schneider. Since the late 90s, McCaslin has released 11 albums as a frontman and been nominated for a Grammy three times – twice for solos on Schneider albums, once for improvisation on his own album, Casting for Gravity, released in 2012. The music he makes is ambitious yet approachable, unabashedly the work of someone who grew up with rock on the radio. As an improviser, McCaslin is openly, highly emotional, far more interested in expressing his feelings than showing off his considerable technique. His solos sometimes seem almost extra-musical, and can reach the paroxysm of a Pentecostal fever.

In the making of Black Star, Bowie had McCaslin and his quartet – McCaslin on reeds and woodwinds, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Mark Guliana on drums and percussion, augmented for the recording by Ben Monder on electric guitar – to play like them. Bowie brought the music he wrote to the band, but freed up the musicians to do it in their own style. McCaslin’s band sound, dense and polyphonic, yet propulsive, often biting, becomes the sound of the album. For Black Star, McCaslin served as much as Bowie had with Lou Reed on Transformer. Bowie enlisted McCaslin to be his Bowie. The result is an album of mature and serious music, unpretentiously virtuosic and deeply emotional. The lyrics are enigmatic and attractive, Bowie-style, and dark, dealing implicitly and sometimes explicitly with themes of loss and decline. It’s dark and beautiful and, with Bowie’s death two days after his release in mind, hard to take in.

McCaslin and his quartet, without Ben Monder and with Nate Wood on bass, played at the Village Vanguard last week, and I saw the first set. The band was at its best, with McCaslin playing with a feeling so deep it appeared more than once as if it was about to fall apart. At one point he tried to talk about Bowie, but couldn’t get his name out. He tried several times and had to turn his head away from the microphone. Before the set was over, he mustered up the strength to talk a bit about Bowie before leading the band in a free, restrained, and heartbreaking performance of “Warszawa,” a collaboration between Bowie and Eno on the moo album. It had been written, in the late 1970s, to evoke the gloom of Warsaw during the Cold War era, and this time it evoked a timely sadness. “It was David Bowie,” McCaslin said.

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