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Donny McCaslin: The David Bowie Connection

Donny McCaslin: The David Bowie Connection

Donny McCaslin: The David Bowie Connection
Donny McCaslin Quartet (L-R): Jason Lindner, Tim LeFebvre, Donny McCaslin, Mark Guiliana

On June 15, two artists with direct ties to major milestones in pop culture perform in a double bill — Donny McCaslin and Antonio Sánchez. We take a look at saxophonist and composer Donny McCaslin’s connection to the late rock icon David Bowie.

The career path of saxophonist Donny McCaslin has taken sharp twists and turns since the Santa Cruz native began his life as a musician, performing with his vibraphonist father’s band at age 12, playing in the band at Aptos High School, and studying with SFJAZZ High School All-Stars director Paul Contos.

A full-ride to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1984 put McCaslin on the fast track to major name status in jazz, and a four-year stint with vibraphonist, educator and peerless talent scout Gary Burton led to New York and work with Steps Ahead, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Antonio Sánchez, and perhaps most consequentially, bandleader and composer Maria Schneider.

From the late 90s, McCaslin has recorded a series of edgy, hyper-modern albums for the Arabesque and Sunnyside labels as well as Douglas’ homegrown Greenleaf imprint – releases that expanded from a basis in angular post-bop to embrace electronics and the influence of artists from outside the jazz milieu including Squarepusher and Boards of Canada – while working on and off with Schneider, whose 2004 Concert in the Garden and 2015 The Thompson Fields sessions earned McCaslin two of his three GRAMMY nominations.

ImageSchneider’s work with David Bowie on the late pop giant’s track “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” from his 2014 compilation album Nothing Has Changed brought McCaslin to Bowie’s attention, and a surreptitious visit to New York’s 55 Bar in the spring of 2014 to hear McCaslin’s working quartet with keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim LeFebvre, and drummer Mark Guiliana cemented Bowie’s decision to employ McCaslin and his band for his next, and tragically final, masterpiece.

10 days after Bowie’s visit, McCaslin received an email that would mark a milestone in his career. As he told Rolling Stone, “I thought, 'This is David Bowie, and he chose me, and he's sending me an email?”

ImageIn January of 2015, work began on the album that would be called Blackstar (stylized as “★”) at New York’s (now closed) Magic Shop studio. The quartet, with contributions by maverick guitarist Ben Monder and longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, brought a darkly evocative energy and tight ensemble sound to Bowie’s compositions that blended influences of hip-hop, ambient soundscaping, and open improvisation into a singular sonic language.

Bowie succumbed to liver cancer two days after the release of Blackstar, which went on to debut at #1 on album charts around the world and receive five GRAMMY awards, winning in all categories for which it was nominated.

Accepting Bowie’s GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance for Blackstar, McCaslin said:

“The course of my life as an artist and person changed when I met David. I’m a better artist and a better person for having known him.”

McCaslin’s latest recording, Beyond Now, is his debut on Motema Music and homage to the memory of Bowie, featuring the Blackstar band and a heartfelt cover of Bowie’s instrumental “Warszawa” from his 1977 album Low.

Donny McCaslin and band accepting the Best Rock Performance GRAMMY for Blackstar:

Video of David Bowie's song "Lazarus" from Blackstar:

Donny McCaslin and the Blackstar band perform in a double bill with drummer Antonio Sánchez’s Migration group on 6/15. Tap here for more information. 

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