On January 8th, his 69th birthday, David Bowie is set to release his 27th album ‘Blackstar’ – featuring a backing band of jazz musicians.
David Bowie once said that, aged 14, he couldn’t decide if he wanted ‘to be a rock’n’roll singer or John Coltrane’. He of course went off to have glorious pop career, veering from genre to genre with every album, but the desire to ‘be’ John Coltrane still lurked in the shadows. He has expressed admiration for many jazz and jazz-influenced artists, including Gil Scott Heron and Ken Nordine, and his own saxophone playing was indebted to Coltrane and Mingus, having received tutelage from renowned British baritone saxophonist Ronnie Ross. From the keyboard chops of long-time collaborator Mike Garson to hints of Charlie Parker buried in his early work (such as the lounge aesthetics of ‘Changes’), there has been an undeniable presence of jazz in his music – not necessarily glaringly obvious, but there nonetheless. Long-time musical ally, producer and friend, Tony Visconti, who has been working with Bowie since 1968, recalls that they originally bonded over a love of the innovative jazz composers and orchestra leaders Stan Kenton and Gil Evans. So with this history of jazz behind him, fans could have expected a stronger presence of the genre. However nothing came of it.
Until now, when, on 8 January, the date of Bowie’s 69th birthday, he is set to release his 27th album ‘Blackstar’ – featuring a backing band of jazz musicians.
With this album, which originally started off as a ‘boundary-pushing experiment’, Visconti said that ‘it wasn't actually spoken out loud, but we were going to make a David Bowie album with jazz musicians, but they weren't necessarily going to play jazz….the goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll….having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down’.
The first signs that Bowie was veering towards a much jazzier direction was with the release of his single ‘Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)’. Released at the end of 2014, it features the Grammy-nominated Maria Schneider Orchestra. This dramatic seven-minute jazz-pop odyssey left people wondering – is this a one off, or is it an indication of a new direction? There were also concerns over how the jazz world would respond, as Mr Bowie was fronting one of America’s most acclaimed big bands. Bowie asked Maria Schneider if her orchestra would be interested in doing a full album, however due to her own recording commitments, she declined and put him onto the Donny McCaslin Quartet. After seeing them perform in New York, Bowie asked them to collaborate.
The quartet, featuring Donny McCaslin on saxophone and flute, pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Giuliana (who was recently named one of the top ten drummers in the world) is completed by guitarist Ben Monder. Their stunning musicianship makes Bowie sound renewed, reinvigorated, and forges a brand of what has been described as ‘future’ jazz. Kendrick Lamar’s multi-award winning, critically acclaimed album ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ could be seen as a touchstone for this brand of ‘future’ jazz, and it seems to have rekindled Bowie’s sense of musical exploration and experimentation during the recording of ‘Blackstar’ - Visconti recounts how ‘we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do.’
The sound the group create has been described as jazz-informed, but rock-intense, each track underpinned by McCaslin’s saxophone and bolstered by the powerhouse duo of Giuliana and Lefebvre. The band create a truly modern form of jazz, with nothing of the traditional about it. They create something that is outside the boundaries of jazz, something that will certainly be called upon to re-define these boundaries anyway. David Bowie is most certainly back, and is as unpredictable as ever.