Donny McCaslin on Collaborating with Bowie on “Blackstar,” and Being Influenced by deadmau5 and Aphex Twin

Donny McCaslin

Photos by Jimmy King

Change is a common theme in the music of Donny McCaslin. The saxophonist came up in traditional jazz, but he’s long since taken steps that have moved him away from that genre tag. His early recordings fell dead-center in post-bop territory, but as his fascination with electronica increased, so did his obsession with finding a way of adapting those new sounds to the language of jazz improvisation. McCaslin’s 2012 recording Casting For Gravity was a career-defining moment; on Gravity, McCaslin amped up his conventional electro-acoustic sound into something that was catchy like pop music, but was already thinking three steps ahead. It was so far from blues and swing that it felt like McCaslin was inventing a new genre whole cloth. He continued that trend on Fast Forward, settling fully into his new form of expressionism, and setting up his next step.

Then came Blackstar.

In a story that has now been well-documented, Bowie hired McCaslin and his quartet to collaborate with him on what would turn out to be his final album. Like McCaslin, Bowie also began as a genre traditionalist before transcending and then entirely reshaping it. Bowie’s and McCaslin’s separate creative arcs dovetailed to a place where the mutual influences of rock, pop, electronica and jazz improvisation gave them common ground.

We spoke with McCaslin about the Bowie experience, how their respective visions played out on the recording of Blackstar, and how that experience helped shape McCaslin’s new album, Beyond Now.

It’s obvious that Bowie didn’t just pick you guys randomly to collaborate on Blackstar. In many ways, your individual development had the two of you ending up in a similar musical place at the same time. How important do you think that was for Bowie that your own sound wasn’t that far removed from his own?

I think he [Bowie] was writing with the band in mind. [Big band composer] Maria Schneider had played Casting For Gravity for him, and he’d even mentioned the song “Alpha & Omega.”  And he was checking us out on YouTube and our other projects, and also was really into Mark Guiliana’s Beats Music. My sense is he was checking out what we were into, and he took that into account as he was writing Blackstar.

The electronica wasn’t in my wheelhouse six, seven years ago. I was generally aware of Squarepusher and similar stuff, but I hadn’t delved into it. But once I started, I really enjoyed it. A lot of what i enjoyed was the atmospheric drone.

It was out of my comfort zone as an improvisor, so I felt challenged to come up with the language and vocabulary appropriate to this context as an improvisor—still playing acoustically, but trying to come up with different ways to meet those sounds and feel authentic to this kind of music.

So why did David choose us? I think it’s that we were exploring different territory as a group and pushing some boundaries musically, and that’s one of the hallmarks of his career. He was this visionary artist who was kind of fearless and not afraid to keep moving around and recreating himself in a variety of different ways.


But still there are going to be differences. In the process of collaborating on Blackstar, did either of you nudge the other in one direction or the other?

Our starting place were the demos that Bowie sent. The demos were always the starting point. For me, it was taking the horn line and orchestrating it, maybe adding some counterpoint, and Mark began by trying to plug into the beat that Bowie had already played on the demo.

I think part of the reason that it worked out so well is the band is very malleable stylistically. We’ve come up through the jazz tradition, but we’re also really involved into other types of music—rock, electronica, just a lot of different things. So, when Bowie’s music displayed different influences, we were able to handle it all.

But sometimes it felt like we really needed his playing. On his demos, he played guitar, and we asked that his guitar be left in for us to play along to when recording. And if he had a really chunky or soulful guitar sound, that would help to inspire us, help us get closer to Bowie as we played. It was that kind of back and forth.

Did Bowie’s rock background, his edge, influence the making of Beyond Now?

Yeah, I think so. If we look back on my last few records, Casting For Gravity was pretty intense. Fast Future, on the other hand, I intentionally sought to have melodies that were softer around the edges.

What we’d experienced making Blackstar had deepened our connection musically, and I wanted the new album to reflect that. I also wanted the album to capture the energy and edge when we play live. There’s no substitute for that edgy guitar rock thing, really. And experiencing that in the studio, that helped us.

Your new album isn’t a huge divergence from what preceded it. Do you think you would have ended up here anyway or did the Blackstar sessions nudge you in a different direction?

I knew I would be making a new record, but it wasn’t until three months after Blackstar that I sat down and began to write the original music for Beyond Now. So, it was already something I had been thinking about, and though the new album was really influenced by Blackstar, it was also really influenced by deadmau5 and Aphex Twins and all the stuff that was feeding my unconscious and imagination, feeding my creativity. So, Beyond Now was going to happen regardless of whether we did Blackstar or not, but I do think that going through that experience did change me, and I think ultimately Beyond Now is a stronger album because of that experience. And part of it is the going through that together as a band and part of it is going through that with an artist like David Bowie, this profound visionary artist, and being moved and inspired by him.

On Beyond Now, you tackle two different Bowie compositions: “A Small Plot of Land” and “Warszawa.” What made you choose these two particular songs?

“Warszawa” was the obvious choice, because we had started playing it a couple weeks after he passed away. We did a week at the Village Vanguard and we played it every set of every night, so I knew that one. That was a no-brainer. That had to be on the record. After that, there was a back and forth with [producer and saxophonist] David Binney. He’s the one that sent over “Small Plot of Land.”  At that point, I didn’t know that record. But that song—so open, great melody, and the song can go in so many different directions. There were definitely some other songs considered, but at that time and place, “Small Plot” felt like the right fit for us.

Do you see this being a place you’re going to immerse yourself in for awhile?  Or did you get any ideas about what your next project should be? 

The way I experience it is as there are elements on the record that you’re finishing that are gateways to the next thing, but I’ve been so busy with touring since I finished the record. The ideas have come up and I haven’t really had the chance to sit down and explore then and see where they’d lead, and which will take hold. And I’m having so much fun exploring this current territory and I feel like there’s more to do. And I just enjoy playing with the guys so much.

Dave Sumner

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