The making of David Bowie's Blackstar

Richard Purden chats to saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who played an essential role on David Bowie's Blackstar album and has dedicated his new solo record to the singer's memory.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin played an essential role in the making of Blackstar
Richard Purden

LAST autumn it emerged that David Bowie was about to deliver his 25th studio album, Blackstar. Its release concurred with the singer's 69th birthday on January 8: just two days later, fans were astonished to receive the news that Bowie had died after a period of illness.

Two further albums have now arrived from the creative phase that forged his final work.

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin played an essential role in the making of Blackstar and has dedicated his new solo long-player Beyond Now to the memory of the singer.

It includes two Bowie covers and a further song inspired by the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin also performs on three further Bowie songs from the period that feature on the cast recording of Lazarus, the musical that Bowie co-wrote with Irish playwright Enda Walsh.

The creativity that buoyed Blackstar is all over Beyond Now as well as other shades of Bowie's vivid career.

"It was his fearlessness as an artist", explains McCaslin when discussing their time together.

"He encouraged us all to take chances in the studio, there was an element of 'Let's see what happens' and his aesthetic was always open and collaborative.

"David was 68 when we were making Blackstar and he wasn't worried about what genre this music would be classified under, he was fearless in how he realised the work."

Many perceived a distinct connection between Blackstar and Bowie's 1977 groundbreaking master-work Low; both records at times convey feelings of displacement as well as a sense of something sacred.

The New York-based jazz ensemble led by McCaslin that featured on Blackstar chose to play Warszawa (from Low) in the aftermath of Bowie's death: their version is featured on Beyond Now.

"It came about in January during a week-long run of gigs in New York, David had just passed, it's hard to put into words but it was a really difficult time and I wanted to do this tribute.

"Jason [Linder, who also contributed to the Blackstar recording sessions] suggested Warszawa and we played it in every set that week.

"It offered a chance to pour out the feelings we were all going through and I wanted to record it in tribute to David. It's been a regular part of our repertoire since.

"The Berlin period lends itself naturally to what we do as a band, we have started to play Art Decade from Low and Look Back In Anger (Lodger), those tunes feel like a good fit for us."

Recently McCaslin appeared alongside Lazarus lead actor Michael C Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under), who has been described as the late singer's "representative on Earth" after making various broadcast and live appearances performing the title-track of the musical.

"We played in New York with musicians from the Blackstar band and others that had played with Bowie. We played around 25 Bowie songs; I got to play the solo in Modern Love, which was fun."

The saxophonist also features on the final Bowie recordings which have been granted a release on the Lazarus cast album.

"It was nice to hear those songs again and be reminded just how strong a songwriter he really was.

"No Plan we recorded the first time we got together, generally speaking we got the takes pretty quickly but No Plan was an exception-we worked on it a lot.

"The first demo David had recorded at home, he cut another demo with a female vocalist and a piano, it was much more like a show-tune and of course that's what it was."

There's also connection with When I Met You and the title track of Beyond Now?

"Yes, I was working on this piece, it was one of those moments where it was reminding me of something, I realised it was one of David's tunes. When I Met You is a really great song and very different from the aesthetic on Blackstar; I think it harks back to his earlier work."

The course of Bowie's final musical crossing was shaped by his 2014 collaboration with big-band leader Maria Schneider.

Their recording of Sue (Or A Season In Crime), like previous Bowie game-changers, split opinion.

To the end he continued to challenge fans while pushing what was possible for a popular singer.

Killing A Little Time is another potent example of that last creative epoch.

"David was a big Maria Schneider fan", continues McCaslin.

"There was a particular song he liked, Dance You Monster To My Soft Song, and I was thinking about that when I was filling in the spaces of that track; it's kind of dark."

Bowie fans wishing to look further into the conventions that shaped Blackstar will find more of that vital energy on both of these new releases.

Undoubtedly working with David Bowie is now part of McCaslin's musical legacy.

"I felt a really strong emotional attachment with him – I think the influence on myself from being around him was profound. I loved him dearly."

:: Beyond Now and Lazarus: The original cast recording to the musical by David Bowie and Enda Walsh are out now.

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