Donny McCaslin Takes 'Blackstar' Collaborators Beyond Bowie on New Album 'Beyond Now'

Christian von Ameln
Donny McCaslin performs at Club de Jazz on Aug. 18, 2016 in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Longtime pals and collaborators saxophonist Donny McCaslin, drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist/sequencer Jason Lindner didn't need David Bowie to become lions of the modern jazz universe. Since the late '90s, each has steadily risen within the avant-garde jazz ranks of Manhattan and its more recent electronic subculture to become respectable stars with signature moves, both as sidemen and soloists/leaders.

"We've all known each other for a long time and met in a variety of manner," says reeds-man McCaslin, quickly pointing to the example of befriending Lefebvre. "We met through playing basketball once a week, long before we made music together."

They played on albums together; got each other gigs; advanced and innovated along the lines of the nu-electronic jazz model with stealthy, sinewy albums such as McCaslin's 2015 Fast Future and Lindner's 2013 Earth Analog.

Then Bowie popped into their lives -- first in the spring of 2014 as they played at the West Village's 55 Bar followed by sessions for one song, "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),"  then again in January 2015 for what would be Bowie's 25th album -- resulting in his most dramatic, experimental creation: Blackstar.

Along with being Bowie's first No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 upon its January 8 release, Blackstar will be (as rumored by its producer Tony Visconti this spring) the subject of an expanded box set due by 2016's end featuring videos, a possible Lazarus cast recording from the off-Broadway play's brief run and unreleased tracks. "To be totally honest, we recorded twice as many songs as are on the finished album -- so I never imagined it as a whole, but rather, individual masterpieces," says Guiliana.

That Boiwe died mere days after its release on his 69th birthday only added to Blackstar's elegiac majesty and death-knell lyricism. "It was devastating in ways I can't begin to imagine," says Lefebvre, who worked closely with his pals Bowie and Visconti at NYC's The Magic Shop studio. "We just tracked the record and never saw David again, save for a few emails," states Guiliana. "I knew my life would never be the same, yet it's been an even-bigger deal than I ever dreamed."

In that wake, not only was Blackstar the most exquisite, fitting finale to a gorgeously adventurous career, Bowie made his new art-rock-meets-avant-jazz quartet into an even-bigger sensation  to which McCaslin's upcoming new album with this troupe, Beyond Now (due for release Oct. 14 via Motéma Music), is the most logical progression. For not only is it (unsurprisingly) inspired by McCaslin & Co.'s time with Bowie (even elegantly covering a Bowie rarity in "A Small Plot of Land"), it moves forward the nu-electronica jazz vibe in ways Bowie-ish (think 1977's Low from where "Warsawa" hails) and beyond.

"It’s been mind-blowing, all that's come since Blackstar," says Lindner of the lingering emotionalism of working with Bowie, to say nothing of the creative heights and popularity he and his fellow collaborators are currently experiencing. "I'm just trying to not screw up. It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

None of the Blackstar buddies -- all currently rehearsing to tour the Beyond Now album with McCaslin starting in September -- have hit TMZ with any scandals ("You try not to look to any popularity we've received" says Guiliana), yet it's impossible to ignore how marquee their names have become since and the circumstances that got them here. 

"For a long time, I was doing what Mark did, not looking at the bigger picture," says McCaslin, who was initially introduced to Bowie through the saxophonist's friend/collaborator, orchestra leader Maria Schneider, with whom the British crooner penned "Sue" in 2014. "We were just in-session, trying to do our very best, and let the music go where it was going to go." 

Going back even further than the Blackstar sessions, each of the jazz men liked and appreciated Bowie, but for more of his hit-making prowess than the immensity of his deep catalog. "As a child of the 80s, 'Let’s Dance' was everything, a mind-blowing experience," says Lefebvre, after which McCaslin follows with another funny story. "When Blackstar came out, a friend of mine emailed me and recalled us jumping onto the dance floor when 'Let's Dance' came on at the senior prom. That was the soundtrack of our youth."

While Lindner had been a huge fan of Bowie's "Berlin" period of electronic music (Low, Heroes) -- and included the spare and pensive "Warsawa" in the quartet's Village Vanguard sets immediately after Bowie's passing -- Guiliana claims to have delved into Bowie's oeuvre after their first session together. "I'm still doing so," he says. "There's so much variety, it's imposing."
After the immediate rush of media surrounding Bowie's death, all McCaslin & Co. wanted to do was honor Bowie: his family, his legacy and the sonic portrait of a man fearfully yet hopefully looking eternity in the eye. 

"I wanted to talk about the music we made, how amazing it was, as well as his humanity, sense of humor and artistry," says McCaslin, who poured his heart into Beyond Now. McCaslin channeled the feelings and energies that he and his Blackstar collaborators had for Bowie and made something unique, yet still league with what each had been devising since 2000; a love of vivid, yet intricately nuanced electronic music that would become part-and-parcel of modern jazz. "We're primarily acoustic instrumentalists, but what brings us to an electronic center is Jason who has a sense of that sound's subtlety as part of his personality," says Guiliana.

"Donny's compositions for Beyond Now solidified the style that we had been developing, one influenced by a wider range of musical styles," says Lindner, pointing toward a bold sonorous cover of “Coelocanth 1" from rodent-eared house music guru Deadmau5 as yet another inspiration that made it onto this new album. 

"But it all coalesced with Bowie and the idea of deviating from the classical form." Lindner isn't just talking about moving away from traditional jazz and using technology as a next-level tool for its orchestration and vibe. With Bowie as spirit guide, Beyond Now is about throwing away all rules books and looking for other textures and outside territories to enliven the quartet's already eclectic aesthetic.

"I've loved his music, but this stuff -- this particular style of McCaslin's -- is his best as it shows' real compositional confidence," says Lefebvre of the cool song yet passionate, breathy sax solo of “Bright Abyss” and beyond. "I could be wrong though," he laughs.

"Don't tell Donny we like it that much," says Guiliana with a snicker. 

"Everything that's happened in the last year has brought us closer together, on-and-off the band-stand, and I wanted to capture it, and David, on this new record," says McCaslin. "We have a different level of interplay now, after Blackstar, and that truly came through on Beyond Now.