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CD reviews: On David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar,’ turning to jazz for inspiration

By Nate Chinen  /  NY Times News Service

Blackstar, by David Bowie.

Blackstar, David Bowie, Sony

A lot of questions arose when David Bowie unveiled Blackstar, the 10-minute title track of his new album, as a music video in November. What was the meaning of the clip’s sci-fi surrealism? What had inspired its ominous lyrics? And, perhaps more practically, who were these musicians helping to shape its gnarly but limber style?

One of those questions, at least, is answerable. Bowie, an elusive rock star whose music has been as famously changeable as his image, enlisted the Donny McCaslin Quartet, a rugged jazz-rock combo featuring McCaslin on saxophones, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass and Mark Guiliana on drums. And for all of Blackstar, Bowie plugged right into the intensely responsive metabolism of the band, opening an unlikely new door in his nearly 50-year recording career. The album is due out on Friday, his 69th birthday, on ISO/Columbia.

After the revamped rock snarl of his 2013 album, The Next Day (Columbia), Bowie was determined to seek inspiration elsewhere. Tony Visconti, his main producer and collaborator since Space Oddity, from 1969, said that along the way, they had admired how Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly stood both within and outside hip-hop, especially in its relationship to jazz.

“David and I had long had a fascination for Stan Kenton and Gil Evans,” Visconti added, referring to two prominent jazz orchestrators of the mid-20th century. “We spoke about that virtually the first time we met, back in the ‘60s. We always saw pop and rock as something we were quite capable of doing, but we always held the jazz gods on a pedestal above us.”

The first inkling of this new direction came in the final weeks of 2014, when Bowie released Sue (Or in a Season of Crime), a noirish track featuring the Maria Schneider Orchestra, with McCaslin as a soloist. (It was issued both as a single and as part of a three-disc compilation, Nothing Has Changed.) There was talk about Schneider’s continued involvement, but she was too focused on her own album. She recommended McCaslin’s band.

McCaslin, 49, has been a stalwart on the New York jazz scene for more than 20 years — an improviser with an aptitude for controlled abandon, often uncorking solos that feel both wild and cogent. He recently received a Grammy nomination for best improvised jazz solo, for the deft, swirling tenor saxophone work on Arbiters of Evolution, from that album Schneider was working on, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare). (It has a nomination, too.)

About four years ago, McCaslin made a hard turn toward groove as a bandleader, enlisting the other members of the quartet, who have their own separate histories together. The band’s first album on Greenleaf Music, Casting for Gravity, came out in 2012; a follow-up, Fast Future, appeared last year. The group’s usual haunt is the 55 Bar, where Bowie showed up unannounced to hear them early last year.

“What was really nice was he heard us truly in our most comfortable environment,” Guiliana said. “We were kind of just throwing down.”

Both parties did their homework. Bowie had listened intently to Casting for Gravity as well as Beat Music: The Los Angeles Improvisations, a self-released album by Guiliana.

“And we watched their YouTube videos,” Visconti said. “We were spying on them. David said to me, ‘Really listen a lot to this, and get in your mind how they work.’”

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