Credit: Columbia Records

For his January birthday, David Bowie, 69, is giving everyone else a gift: the first entry in the race for the best album of 2016. Three years ago, the legend emerged from a self-imposed near-exile and ended a decade-long recording drought with The Next Day, a moody meditation on a handful of the shape-shifter’s many musical personas—particularly his triptych of Brian Eno-produced projects from the late ’70s. It was nice to have him back, though the comeback album seemed to be lacking something. For such an iconoclastic artist, Bowie did so much looking back on The Next Day that it was difficult to figure out which way was forward.

But on Blackstar, Bowie has found his path out of the dark the only way he knows how: by completely reinventing himself. His 28th studio album is the product of a collaboration with a jazz combo. Bowie initially cut the single “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” with big-band leader Maria Schneider, which led him to horn player Donny McCaslin.

“At the beginning I was like, ‘Whoa, David Bowie just emailed me!'” says McCaslin. “I certainly had those moments, but I just wanted to stay focused. We just wanted to do the songs justice. His vibe in the studio was generous and gracious. And he’s really funny—a lot of repartee.”

That joyous spirit yielded the seven tracks on Blackstar, including the jaw-dropping 10-minute title track, a reworked version of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” an insistent prog-dance jam called “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore,” and a gauzy dream of a song called “Dollar Days” which recalls the Thin White Duke’s earliest recordings. His voice remains powerful and unique, particularly on the album-closing “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

According to McCaslin, there’s no secret to it. “There was no vocal warm-up or anything,” he says of Bowie. “I was so impressed by how totally present he was in the whole process, and when he was singing, he was dialed in right away. He didn’t need a half hour or his tea with lemon—there was none of that. It was just Boom! Here it is!”

Blackstar is all held together by a palpable chemistry. “We’ve spent a lot of time together, and we improvise a lot together. That cohesion was in place when we got to the studio, and David fit right into it. It was really a band atmosphere,” McCaslin explains. “His approach when we got into the studio was very open and very collaborative. He said, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but let’s have fun and see where it goes.’ He’s a guy who could do anything at this point. I didn’t notice him reaching back. I just felt like he’s pushing to do something new.”

With Blackstar, Bowie has returned to his comfort zone—lightyears ahead of anyone else.