Donny McCaslin melds David Bowie-inspired rock with post-bop fusions of jazz in his album, Beyond Now..
While in New York City, appearing in a stage play, protean rock icon David Bowie visited some of the city’s jazz haunts – turns out The Thin White Duke was a jazz fan (Who knew?). Bowie was planning what would be his final album, Blackstar, and the band he heard in a small club greatly impressed him – that band’s tenor saxophonist was Donny McCaslin, and Bowie invited him to record. While not an outright attempt at jazz, Bowie indirectly drew upon jazz as part of the sonic palette he envisioned for the oft-otherworldly-sounding Blackstar. Shortly after the album’s completion, Bowie passed away – Beyond Now is dedicated to him and features four of the players from Blackstar: McCaslin; Jason Lindner, keyboards, Tim Lefebvre, bass, and Mark Guiana, drums, with assistance from David Binney, Jeff Taylor, and Nate Wood.
While he could’ve taken an easy route – jazz versions of Bowie tunes, for instance – McCaslin has fashioned an album inspired by the vast sonic range of Bowie along with Blackstar itself. While two Bowie co-compositions are included “A Small Plot of Land” and “Warszawa” – it’s mostly original compositions. Stylistically, it’s post bop with overtones of fusion and the avant-garde (of both the jazz and rock spheres). McCaslin has a bright yet steely sound – imagine some of the best aspects of Ernie Watts and Wayne Shorter; not overly “warm”-sounding yet impassioned. The opener “Shake Loose” begins with burbling synthesizer and agitated tenor, with McCaslin digging down deep in the lower registers and reaching for some harrowing Albert Ayler-like high-register heights contrast to the piece’s majestic, almost cinematic theme. “Bright Abyss” has a majestic theme and some dense electronic textures – McCaslin cuts through them like a ship emerging from a murky fog, Linder’s electric piano shimmering like ocean wave. This track evokes the “goth jazz” of the first Weather Report album. McCaslin tackles a very unusual Bowie piece – “Warszawa” was mostly instrumental, a deep, heartfelt sigh of synthesized strings that bore a vague (and beautiful) semblance to Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” McCaslin maintains the haunting, elegiac tone while recasting as a dirge-like jazz ballad, McCaslin’s tenor opening Bowie’s melody and exploring the melancholy in a manner both tender and harrowing. “Glory,” a McCaslin original, begins mid-tempo but gradually builds to a dramatic climax, featuring some sterling lyrical acoustic piano from Lindner, the notes seeming to stick to his fingers as honey would, with a great churning-then-wailing solo from McC. If one expects theme-solos-theme structure of this set, one will be disappointed (but make no mistake, there is great soloing herein). This is the product of a band, the approach geared for ensemble playing and journey-to-the-center-of-the-mind dream-scapes – yet the music always has rhythmic oomph, forward impetus. Bowie – who recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and a fan of Stan Kenton [!]– would likely approve of this heartfelt, inimitable homage. (Mark Keresman)