Home News For sax star, collaboration with David Bowie still paying dividends

For sax star, collaboration with David Bowie still paying dividends


When musicians describe David Bowie as a visionary, they’re not usually referring to a prophecy he made about their own music.

For New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin, collaborating with the protean artist on his final album, 2016’s “Blackstar,” led to a prescient prediction that continues to shape his high-velocity plugged-in sound.

The Santa Cruz native returns to California next week for a series of quartet gigs with synthesizer expert Jason Lindner, playing April 14 at Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, April 15 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, April 16 at Yoshi’s and April 17 at the Hammer Theatre as part of the San Jose Jazz Black Cab Jazz series in the Hammer4 Studio.

Already one of the leading tenor saxophonists of his generation when he connected with Bowie via Grammy Award-winning jazz composer and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, McCaslin found his sonic trajectory radically altered by the “Blackstar” project. One remark in particular has continued to resonate. After a session in the studio Bowie “looked at me and said, ‘Something I see for you is improvising with electronics on the saxophone in your live show,” McCaslin recalled.

It was several years before he started experimenting with pedals and effects, and in the early stages McCaslin didn’t really think that much about Bowie’s remark. “But once the switch flipped, I remembered that conversation,” McCaslin said. “The thing that’s so compelling is that now I can improvise with sound itself and there’s this whole other dimension to my music.”

Released two days before Bowie’s death on Jan. 10, 2016, at the age of 69, “Blackstar” featured McCaslin’s working quartet with keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana. The experience transformed his career on and off the bandstand.

“There was a before and after,” said McCaslin, 57. “That experience was so transformative and so affirming, musically and also personally.”

Designated by Bowie to step in as the spokesman for the album, McCaslin was thrust into the spotlight. His bandmates were already deeply engaged with contemporary idioms like electronica, dub, house, and drum and bass music, and with a flood of new opportunities McCaslin started experimenting with electronics on the bandstand.

I caught up to McCaslin while he was in Japan performing with pianist Makoto Ozone, renewing a relationship forged when they were rising stars in the 1980s with vibraphone great Gary Burton, one of keenest talent scouts in jazz history. After his Bay Area dates he’s got a week-long run at the Village Vanguard with an acoustic quintet.

The relationship with Bowie also continues to feed his work, as McCaslin recently played sold-out concerts in Seattle and Portland with Blackstar Symphony: The Music of David Bowie, which features vocals by longtime Bowie bandmember Gail Ann Dorsey and David Poe and arrangements by Maria Schneider, Tim Davies, Vince Mendoza, Jamshied Sharifi, and “Blackstar” album producer Tony Visconti.

Designed for a 65-piece orchestra and jazz quartet, the Blackstar Symphony project hits the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., for two nights in late June, but no California dates have been confirmed yet. The group McCaslin brings to the Bay Area features electric bassist Jonathan Maron, who toured for years with Meshell Ndegeocello and is an original member of Groove Collective, and founding Kneebody drummer Nate Wood.

With his mastery of the analog synthesizer, Lindner has been a key part of McCaslin’s evolution, both before and after they connected with Bowie for “Blackstar.” More than the saxophonist’s technical prowess, what’s impressed Lindner about McCaslin is “his intensity, this intention of lifting up everyone in the room,” he said. “Donny does this thing as a soloist where he just pushes himself to reach whatever he’s chasing, and in the process the whole band and the room is sort of levitating.”

Lindner generates a great deal of thrust himself with the orchestral sensibility he brings to the synth. A sonic muse for McCaslin, he’s a player who gets called for the most interesting assignments, like a spring tour with pioneering Ethio-jazz composer and vibraphonist Mulatu Astatke, which includes two nights at Berkeley’s UC Theatre, June 12-13.

“Part of what’s special is that Jason lives in that world of cutting-edge electronic music,” McCaslin said. “It opens up this world of possibilities for me. We’ve got the rhythmic language we’ve grown up with as jazz players, and now that I’m also using electronics we’re having this conversation. We’re able to meet on that level sonically and now we can converse with sounds.”

Somewhere, David Bowie is listening.

Contact Andrew Gilbert at [email protected].


When & where: 4:30 p.m. April 14 at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay; $45-$55 (livestream $10); bachddsoc.org; 7 p.m. April 15 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, Santa Cruz; $23.50-$47.25; www.kuumbwajazz.org; 8 p.m. April 16 at Yoshi’s, Oakland; $29-$69; www.yoshis.com; 7 p.m. April 17 at Hammer4 Studio, Hammer Theatre; $35-$45; hammertheatre.com

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