Expert Testimony: Final Sessions with a Legend

Given by Donny McCaslin ’88 to Curtis Killian

Donny McCaslin '88 at the Regattabar, January 27, 2016
Donny McCaslin '88 at the Regattabar, January 27, 2016
Curtis Killian

When Donny McCaslin ’88 and his jazz quartet were enlisted by David Bowie H’99 to be the core band on what became Blackstar, Bowie’s 25th and final album, the Grammy-nominated saxophonist, composer, and bandleader was ready for the moment.

“David encouraged us to try anything and everything that we heard,” McCaslin says of the three weeks he spent recording with Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti early last year, nearly a year before the star’s death. “He said something to me in the beginning like, “Donny, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with this, but let’s just have some fun.’ ”

A fixture of the New York jazz scene for the past three decades, McCaslin has worked as a bandleader and sideman for the likes of Steps Ahead, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and Gary Burton ’62, with whom he began touring during his senior year at the college. “Being at Berklee and thrust into this world where the boundaries of music or styles were pretty fluid, was really a great experience that helped me to broaden my musical language,” McCaslin says.

His dexterity as a musician, bandleader, and orchestrator is clearly displayed on Blackstar. Just weeks after the album’s release and the shock of Bowie’s death, McCaslin shared thoughts about recording with Bowie and how he and his jazz quartet became the rock legend’s final backing band.

Can you describe how your band was chosen to back David Bowie on Blackstar?

It was an absolute joy to be a part of, as you can imagine. The way it came to be was that I’m a member of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and she was collaborating with David Bowie in 2014 to write a song called “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” During that time she played David a record of mine called Casting for Gravity and suggested to him that he do something with me and my band. She brought him down to the 55 Bar—a club I play at regularly in New York City—to hear me and my band play.

So it was after the 55 Bar gig that he e-mailed me and sent an MP3 of songs and asked if I’d like to record with him. I was thrilled to have the opportunity and, of course, I responded affirmatively. I also said, “You know, as much as you want to do, we’d love to do with you.”

I think initially it was one or two songs, but that pretty quickly grew to six or seven songs. We set aside a week in January of 2015 to record those songs, and he might have taught us a couple more. At the end of the week, David said he wanted to reconvene in about a month. In the first week of February we got together for another week and in the time in between, he sent me another batch of songs. I’m going to guess it was four or five, and we recorded those songs.

The group to this point included Mark Guiliana on drums, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, Jason Linder on keyboards, and myself. At the end of the February sessions, David wanted to reconvene again. So we did about four or five days in March, and this time we added Ben Monder, an amazing guitar player who was in my band for a long time. After that and another day of guitar overdubs, Tony Visconti reached out to me in mid-April asking me to come in to do an overdub session. I went to the studio with David and Tony and overdubbed a second sax solo on "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” and overdubbed some flute on “Blackstar.” That was it until I heard the record in its entirety for the first time in November [2015].

Hear more from this interview along with excerpts from Blackstar via the Sounds of Berklee podcast:

Being a sax player himself, did Bowie have any specific input for you on style, or did he just let you run free?

He let me run free. It was really wide open. The way that “Sue” happened was that I did the solo at the end of the day, and I had no idea how much they were going to keep. I assumed it was going to be a few notes here and a few notes there because the song itself is pretty dense with the orchestra playing and there’s so much happening. I was sort of blown away when I first heard it, thinking, “Oh my goodness, I’m soloing through the whole thing!” They kept it all—which was wonderful. I’d really worked hard to prepare for that because I wasn’t sure what to expect and there’s so much going on in the piece. I was trying to find the places where I could play and not clash with the orchestra or with what David was singing. I was so happy with how it came out.

It’s striking how different the version of the song is on the Blackstar album.

That was a conscious thing. That’s the song [on Blackstar] for which we did the most takes. We were exploring how to make it different enough from the original version. I said that I thought it would be nice to try a version that was just really stripped down, just featuring David’s singing with the drums and bass kind of going crazy as Mark and Tim do so magnificently. We tried a few versions where I was essentially cuing the two different sections, but it wasn’t really coming together, so we ended up going back for the most part to the song form of the version Maria did, but keeping the spirit of the bass and the drums with David’s vocals.

We got a take that felt really good. I was playing a solo at the end, and overnight I kept thinking about it. I took out Maria’s score and did a reduced version for clarinet, flute, and alto flute. It was laden with woodwinds and the saxophone solo, but for the final version we stripped away a lot of the woodwinds and most of the sax solo.

I love both versions. In the newer version I think there’s a spot in the end where David modulates up a half step or something. It was this spontaneous thing that happened and it was so beautiful how we all merged there together.

His vocals were very strong, very passionate; he sang with a lot of conviction, and that was a sparkplug for us. We are used to the back and forth, playing off each other and trying to come up with something together. And he was this new, really strong voice. I just love that spontaneous moment, he was like a jazzer blowing and taking something up a half step and the band modulating. It’s so great. Mark and Tim were just going completely nuts at the end. It’s so energetic and killing.

On that one we played a lot with the form, but formwise, most of the others are pretty much as David sent them to me. We were practicing the song “Lazarus” and Tim started playing an arpeggiated thing and David said, “Oh, I really like that!” The whole intro and outro just kind of happened spontaneously in the studio. David heard something he liked, identified it, and encouraged us to develop it. It ended up being a really beautiful part of the tune and example of him being so engaged and collaborative, open to what was going on.

It sounded like a really natural mixture of jazz and exploratory rock. I read that Bowie was influenced heavily by Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo, and listening to things that were out of the norm for their genre. Did he provide any specific direction?

From what I could tell he was a person who listened to and processed a lot of music. Definitely, the Kendrick Lamar record and D’Angelo’s record were mentioned, but also a lot of other stuff. One thing that was really impressive and inspiring about him was just the amount of music and literature he would process. It was neat to hear him and Tony talk about influences from their youth and their time in Berlin.

How did the making of Blackstar differ from your other experiences as a bandleader?

A couple things come to mind. One is that the pacing was a lot more relaxed than a jazz record. Not that a jazz record is fraught with being rushed, but in the jazz world you’re usually making a record in one or two days. In this instance we had multiple days at our disposal. It was different having time and not having to do six tunes a day. It gave me the luxury of feeling like I could delve into these songs with the different woodwind sounds I was hearing. I could delve into the orchestration more than I’m usually able to. It’s the first time that I did something where I was playing all the different instruments and it unfolded pretty organically.

Another thing I took away from these sessions was feeling so grateful to David for his great and generous spirit. He was humble, gracious, and really funny. There was a lot of fun banter in the studio. But he was very focused on some of the songs and he was working out the lyrics as we were tracking. It was just a great creative environment. It was so much fun to work that way and have time to layer parts and experiment with things.

Is there a single memory that stands out from the sessions for Blackstar?

I would say it was the joy on David’s face when we would have a take that everybody felt was the take. It was very moving to me. It was beautiful.

In May, McCaslin mentored and led a student quartet for several performances as part of Berklee’s Masters on the Road Program.