The New Cool: Blackstar Jazz Star Donny McCaslin

Mar 10, 2017

It’s not the kind of fame you want, but sax player Donny McCaslin is reaping the rewards of his band’s work backing up David Bowie on his final album, "Blackstar," released just two days before Bowie’s death.

Accepting one of the five Grammys the album received at this year’s ceremony, McCaslin said, “I’m a better artist and better person for having known him.”

The Bowie influence on McCaslin has been profound, his new release with his quartet "Beyond Now" has been described as a continuation of the music they made on "Blackstar."

Blurring the lines between jazz, rock and electronic music with hard-charging, complex original tunes, the album also includes covers of modern electronic groups Mutemath and Deadmau5, and a pair of Bowie songs, “Warzsawa” and “A Small Plot of Land”.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, McCaslin says, “He was so fearless as an artist and not afraid to reinvent himself and keep pushing musical boundaries, and that’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I wanted to make sure we went all the way with it.”

Going all the way has been McCaslin’s preferred method of making music for years. The California native came up playing in his vibraphone-playing father’s band as a teenager, toured with Gary Burton’s band while studying at the Berklee College of Music, and then with award-winning big band leader Maria Schneider, who recommended him to David Bowie.

McCaslin’s released a dozen albums of his own; in the last few years he’s been working in elements of electronic music. Talking to The Guardian, he says there’s “this vibe with electronica, this busy rhythmic activity. The framework of it speaks to me.”

On this week’s The New Cool, you’ll hear the electronica-flavored “Love What is Mortal” from 2015’s "Fast Future," with the same band he worked with on "Blackstar" — Jason Lindner on keys, Tim Levebvre at the bass, and Mark Guiliana plays drums.

Note the odd spoken word “phone message” break mid-song from an apparent longing lover. It’s just the kind of out-of-the-box storytelling that David Bowie would appreciate. The band is touring through the Northwest this month, stopping at Olympia’s Washington Center on March 22. It’s a show you don’t want to miss.

The New Cool airs Saturdays at 3:00 p.m. The program is hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.