When tenor and
soprano saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his group—keyboardist Jason Lindner,
bassist Jonathan Maron, and drummer Zach Danziger—take the stage at Zankel
Hall, it’s a sure bet that at least some in the audience will be there because
of David Bowie. For Blackstar, the
final album recorded by the late rock chameleon, Bowie called upon McCaslin for
musical support, and suddenly the California-born, Brooklyn-based musician
found himself enjoying a major uptick in recognition—after more than 30 years
in the business.
“That whole experience of working on Blackstar
has meant a lot more exposure for me outside of the jazz world and outside of
the jazz press,” McCaslin says.
Following Bowie’s death, McCaslin dedicated his next—and most recent—album, Beyond Now, to the man he calls “a
visionary artist.” Bowie, he says, “was fearless and constantly evolving and
changing and pushing the boundaries, musically and artistically. Those are all
things that I strive for, and to work with someone who embodies that is
inspiring. He was really present and engaged in every moment at every level of
the process. Also, he was very generous of spirit, a great human being.”
McCaslin says that he may include a Bowie
song in his Zankel set, but he expects that the show will consist primarily of
material from Beyond Now, as well
as new music he’s writing especially for the occasion.
His longtime fans won’t be surprised if those new tunes take McCaslin into musical areas he hasn’t investigated before: Since
he began playing professionally, he’s never been content to stay in one
place artistically for very long. During a career that initially found him
serving as a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton’s band and the critically
acclaimed Steps Ahead before going off on his own, McCaslin has displayed a
hunger for growth and change.
“I’m focused on what’s in front of me,” he says, “always looking at what I can
do to grow as an artist and as a musician. I have evolved over the years, no
question.” That truth becomes apparent while listening back to the dozen albums
McCaslin has recorded as a leader since the late 1990s. During the past several
years, in fact, he’s made some of his most pronounced stylistic shifts with the
incorporation of electronica into his sound.
“It was my producer, David Binney, who said I should consider doing an electric
record,” says McCaslin. “What was really attractive about electronica to me was
the sonic landscapes and the rhythmic activity that are present. As we were
making Beyond Now, I was listening to
a lot of deadmau5, Kendrick Lamar, and Aphex Twin, plus all the music we had
recorded with Bowie was still kind of fresh in my mind. Now I’m thinking about
what’s coming next. I have ideas,” he says. “I’m just trying to find the time
to work them out.”
—Jeff Tamarkin is a veteran music journalist.