From Mick Ronson on Ziggy Stardust to Brian Eno on Low to Robert Fripp on “Heroes”, David Bowie had a knack for finding other masterful musicians and pushing them to their full potential. That held true on his final masterpiece, Blackstar, which showcases the instrumental acrobatics of jazz saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his ensemble.
Now, McCaslin is returning with his first album of his own since working with Bowie. “Looking at him when I was playing in the studio and the conviction and the passion that he sang with, that’s the same way that I play as a saxophone player,” McCaslin tells EW. “There was a lot of that energy bouncing off of all of us when we were recording Blackstar and I wanted to make sure that that was all present in this new record.”
Out Oct. 14, Beyond Now features the same group of musicians that defined Blackstar‘s aesthetic — keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and Mark Guiliana — and also pays tribute to Bowie with two covers, of 1977’s “Warszawa” and 1995’s “A Small Plot of Land.”
Check out McCaslin’s take on “A Small Plot of Land” — featuring guest vocalist Jeff Taylor — below, and read on to learn more about his experience working with Bowie and what he learned from collaborating with the rock legend.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you decide to cover these two Bowie songs?
DONNY MCCASLIN: It started with “Warszawa.” We played a week at the Village Vanguard [in New York], the third week of January this year. As David had just passed, it was such an emotional time. I was thinking about what would be a good way to pay tribute to him and our keyboardist Jason Lindner suggested “Warszawa.” We played it every set that week. It was so great to be able to channel the feelings that were going on and the things I was processing emotionally into the overall performance, but especially that song. I knew that I wanted to record it.
“A Small Plot of Land” was suggested by Beyond Now‘s producer, David Binney. That one felt like it would be a good match. It resonates with us and we feel we can tell our own story within that framework.
Both of these Bowie songs are from albums he did with Brian Eno. Did you think the sound they had together particularly fit your group?
I do. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but as I settled on those two songs I did notice that. This past month, I’ve delved deeper into his discography and I’ve found some more songs that I want to adapt for this group. Not all of them are collaborations with Eno, but a large amount are from that Berlin trilogy period. Tunes off Lodger, another song or two off Low — that period just seems to resonate with me.
How did playing with Bowie on Blackstar influence this album and your musical style?
The title track “Beyond Now” is directly inspired by a song of David’s that we recorded during the Blackstar sessions, but that didn’t make the final record. All the originals were written last summer — before he passed away, but while the Blackstar recordings were still really fresh. [The sessions concluded in spring 2015.] Songs of his were just kind of running through my unconscious. That was part of it.
Another aspect is I know he always loved it when we would really go for it and stretch out and push. For example, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” off of Blackstar, that was the first take that we did of that song. We were all just pushing hard. We were all excited. There’s a spot near the end of the tune where he goes “Woo!” and that encapsulates how we were feeling. That intensity was something I wanted this album to represent — that we were just going to put it all out there. It’s the way that we played anyway, but it got to another level because of the whole Blackstar experience and everything that happened with David. The idea of putting it all out there, the way that I saw him do it, that inspired me.
Did Bowie know you’d record some of his songs for a record?
I went over to his place in November of last year and we were listening to Blackstar. I was hearing it for the first time. I told him that I was checking out his discography, looking to adapt some of his tunes. He seemed happy [laughs]. He was looking forward to hear what he would do with them, was my impression.
There are also covers of Mutemath and Deadmau5 songs on the album. How did you choose those?
There’s some other influences on the record. The first song, “Shake Loose,” the urgency was coming from my idea of David and trying to engage the listener right away. The way the melody is phrased is really coming from Kendrick Lamar. David and [producer] Tony Visconti had talked about Kendrick being something that they’d listened to and were excited by recently — and I am also a Kendrick Lamar fan. As that melody was coming out, I remember feeling like the sassiness of it was inspired by Kendrick Lamar.
“Bright Abyss” and “Beyond Now” both have Deadmau5 influences. His last record while (1<2) was a record I listened to a lot over the last year and a half. “Coelacanth I” is a Deadmau5 tune from that record that resonated with me. Mutemath’s “Remain” was a suggestion from my producer. He sent me a list of tunes to check out and the build on that tune is remarkable on the original version. It just gets bigger and bigger. I haven’t really checked out a lot of their records, but that track, I heard it and was like, “That would be perfect.”