Music interview: Donny McCaslin on Bowie, Beyond Now and Hull Jazz Festival

Sax player Donny McCaslin, who worked with Bowie on his final album, heads to Hull Jazz Festival. Duncan Seaman reports.

Donny McCaslin. Picture: Jimmy King

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his band were famously the last group to play with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar.

Next month they’re heading for the former stomping ground of another of the late singer’s bands, Hull – home of the Spiders From Mars – for a concert at the city’s Jazz Festival.

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For 50-year-old McCaslin, from Santa Clara, California, it’ll be a first visit to the north of England. “I haven’t been to Hull before or even that region. I’m excited to be a part of the festival,” he says.

Much of the band’s current setlist was inspired by their work with Bowie. “I’ve mostly been presenting the music from Beyond Now [the album they made in April 2016, a few months after the singer’s death] live but also including Lazarus [from Blackstar] because it’s a very meaningful song for me personally and some other Bowie tunes from his discography that I’ve fallen in love with over the last couple of years,” McCaslin explains.

“Also we’re rounding it out with some new material that I’ve been writing in the last six months. It’s a combination of those three elements, then I guess I would also say a couple of older tunes of mine from my other electronica-type projects like Fast Future and Stadium Jazz.”

McCaslin was first introduced to Bowie in 2014 via Maria Schneider, in whose jazz orchestra he had frequently performed. “They were talking and David had been describing what he was hearing as the rhythmic underpinning for Sue [Or In a Season of Crime] and she said, ‘Let me play you something’ and she played him a record of mine called Casting For Gravity and she suggested to him that he do something with me.”

Shortly afterwards Bowie and Schneider went along to a gig that McCaslin was doing at 55 Bar in New York City. “I didn’t actually meet him until a week later when we had the very first workshop/rehearsal session for Sue, the Maria/David collaboration,” recalls McCaslin. “I got to the rehearsal space early and set up my stuff and he walked in and I think I was struck by a few things that looking back are things that I really admired about him.

Donny McCaslin is to appear at Hull Jazz Festival in July. Picture: Jimmy King

“When he walked in the room I felt immediately that he was fully engaged in everything that was going on, taking it all in and he had this very calm presence about him – this balance of feeling very engaged with everything but also in a very relaxed way...I felt like he was very generous in his humanity. He came over and we started talking and he was really wonderful and all of those things were consistent in my experience of working with him.

“We had emails back and forth through the fall of that year then we started recording Blackstar at the beginning of the next year, just through all my interactions with him it was just his generous humanity, just so present and many other things too but he was just a really special person.”

Sue was originally released as a single in 2014 but McCaslin revisited the song with Bowie in more pared down form for Blackstar. “In the second one I think I suggested we strip away and try to really feature drums and bass and David’s voice,” says McCaslin. “Maria’s version being so orchestral and so lush, I thought we’d go in the opposite direction. We tried a couple of versions that way and it just didn’t feel like it was flowing so we went back to the Maria version of the form of the song, alternating between those two chords, and that’s when it started to feel like it was coming together.

“I ended up taking Maria’s arrangement for the horns and doing a reduced version of the clarinets and flutes which I played and laid that in over the track. It comes in here and there in the final version but it adds colour to the track then Jason [Lindner] added some extra keyboards. Ultimately the form ended up being closer to Maria’s version but it’s more open.

Donny McCaslin is to appear at Hull Jazz Festival in July. Picture: Jimmy King

“For me one of the real magical moments of that record is late in the song when David is singing and he modulates to another key and you hear the band bending with him. It was like he was blowing a solo, he was playing with the melody then he goes into another key as improvisers in modern jazz do often and we all went there, it was just so beautiful.”

Before they worked together the only Bowie record that McCaslin was familiar with was Let’s Dance. In the months leading up to the Blackstar sessions the saxophonist began exploring Bowie’s catalogue further – only stop himself. “In the middle of our email correspondence I mentioned it to him and he asked what I was listening to and I listed some of the stuff was from the Ziggy period and some things like that. I started to listen to that stuff and I had come to the realisation that I didn’t want to be too influenced by it actually. I realised he was seeking us out and he wanted us for what we do and I was sure that he didn’t want us to try to recreate something from his past. I sent that list to him and he replied saying ‘That’s my old stuff and I’m listening to different things now’, he essentially confirmed my instinct which was to not focus on his recorded history, so it was not until Blackstar, or my role in it, had been completed that I then started to go back and look through his discography and it’s been a lot of fun to do that.”

McCaslin dedicated his album Beyond Now to David Bowie “and all who loved him”. Its musical spirit has much in common with Blackstar – something, McCaslin says, that was based on wanting to capture the feelings he had about the singer’s passing and the musical and personal impact that Bowie had made on him.

“I think it’s more the latter,” he says, “but it’s also the former too because his passing was still pretty fresh when we made that recording. The original music was written before he passed, in the afterglow of making Blackstar, so that music was still fresh in my sphere or my unconscious when I was writing and I certainly feel its influence in those songs, as well as other influences, but it’s definitely a big part of it.

“When it came to the actual recording and doing songs like Warszawa [that Bowie wrote for his 1977 album Low] especially I certainly was thinking of him. I guess the way I sometimes think of it is that the Blackstar experience was so profound for us, so special, and there was a lot of emotional gravity in that and I wanted to make sure that was present in Beyond Now, that it was still on that level of emotional depth.

“I think going through the whole experience of making Blackstar for myself it was transformative but also the guys in the band, and our relationship and our interaction, I felt like that got deeper so I wanted that also to be chronicled in the new record, so there’s a lot of connection, for sure.”

Ultimately McCaslin feels working with David Bowie inspired him to keep pushing musical boundaries.

“That’s an aesthetic I’ve felt for a long time, to keep moving forward artistically and it’s something that Tony [Visconti] and I talked about a lot in his role as producer. Then to encounter David Bowie aged 68 when we were making Blackstar and see him really embodying that – he’s a musical and cultural icon and he’s still really pushing forward...He was so open to letting the music go wherever it was going to go, that was a powerful experience. To see somebody at that stage in his career totally going for it, realising his musical vision and having this fearlessness to do that, it was powerful to see that. It’s something that I will carry with me for the rest of my years.”

Donny McCaslin plays at Hull Jazz Festival – part of Hull City of Culture – on July 13.