Why BLACKSTAR’s jazz heavy sound represented the past, present and future of Bowie’s music
By Matt Micucci
In the Spring of 2014, David Bowie walked into the 55 Bar, in New York City’s West Village, where saxophonist Donny McCaslin, keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana were playing. Little did the jazz musicians know that they would work alongside Bowie on what would be his final project and, as it happens, his final masterpiece.
Initially, their collaboration was only meant to be on one song: the trippy, jazz-infused “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” which Bowie released on his 2014 compilation album, Nothing Has Changed. The session must have greatly impressed Bowie, who was encouraged to work with them more. For his impromptu album Blackstar, he needed the quickness of improvisation and the courage of experimentation. From previous experience, he knew he could only get the kind he wanted from jazz musicians. He also knew that he needed it more than ever this time around.
Bowie’s health had been a subject of speculation and concern among his fans. The release in 2013 of his album The Next Day had reassured them he was fine and still going strong. However, the truth was very different. Bowie was battling cancer, and felt he needed to be able to rely on the experience and music knowledge of his trusted, longtime collaborator, producer Tony Visconti, and the fire of four jazz avant-garde musicians. They would be able to bring his vision to life, and he would relentlessly throw ideas at them, in styles that ranged from rock to hip hop, from krautrock to pop, all of which would be coated with the sophistication of traditional jazz and the urgency of avant-garde music.
There is more. This final album is as much about the end as it is about the beginning of an entire artistic legacy. It is, in fact, the ultimate musical materialization of the crossroads he faced as a 14 year old boy. Determined to pursue a career in the music industry, as he said himself, he was uncertain about whether he wanted to become “a rock ‘n’ roll singer or John Coltrane.”
Terry, his older brother, was responsible for inspiring a passion in him for the jazz greats. When David was still in school, he would spend many of his Saturday nights listening to jazz at different clubs around London. Terry introduced him to the likes of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Terry was also a fan of beat poetry, and a rebel in his own right, fighting the conformity of late 1950s and early ’60s British society by letting his hair grow long and living his life fast.
By 1961, David decided he wanted to learn how to play the saxophone. He had received a plastic alto sax for Christmas, and was able to convince his father to also buy him a tenor. He received lessons from a young musician named Ronnie Ross, whom Terry had seen nominated as best jazz newcomer by DownBeat magazine in 1961. “He had about eight lessons, one every two weeks and I charged him 2 pounds a lesson,” Ross later recalled. “He stuck it out for that time and then disappeared.” Bowie would indeed reappear to give Ross his greatest claim to fame, performing the final sax solo on Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” from 1972’s Transformer album, which Bowie produced.
Bowie featured saxophone frequently throughout the latter part of his career, particularly in the late ‘70s, where spontaneous jazz riffs shaped the sound of his classic, funky songs “Fame” and “Young Americans”. On 1977’s Low, the second of his acclaimed avant-garde Berlin trilogy albums, a result of his collaboration with Brian Eno, the sound of faint jazz saxophones in “Subterraneans” contributes to the rich, ambient texture that arguably makes it the most melancholic track he ever committed to disc, in a dramatically symbolic way. When in 1989 he embarked on his hard rock Tin Machine project, in which he made all attempts to re-invent himself as a mere band member, Bowie began to also rediscover himself as a saxophonist and allowed himself the opportunity to play his original instrument of choice with some regularity on the road.
Black Tie White Noise, from 1993, found Bowie’s sax more strongly to the fore than on any other album. This was a result of his renewed commitment to the instrument during the proceeding Tin Machine tour. Nile Rodgers, who produced the album, told Rolling Stone that year: “I think David would be the first to admit he is not a saxophonist in the traditional sense. He uses his playing as an artistic tool. He’s a painter. He hears an idea and he goes with it. But he absolutely knows where he’s going.”
The culmination of this newfound confidence can be heard in “Looking for Lester”, perhaps the most impressive track on Black Tie White Noise. The title openly references Coltrane’s “Chasing the Trane”, and sees Bowie and jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie chase each other’s riffs in a sophisticated slice of techno jazz. Lester provided the perfect foil for his namesake’s saxophone work and gave the album a distinctive musical identity with his fierce, brassy, freestyle blowing. It’s hard to imagine the album without him, and it is surprising to find that, originally, he was only supposed to play on one of its tracks; the single “Don’t Let Me Down and Down”.
The constant process of evolution and change is something that defined Bowie’s whole career and kept him innovative and influential right up to his final days. It was a process that also required him to constantly change the musicians he worked with, and more significantly, always required him to use a mixture of styles, often from people who were not involved with popular music and came from completely different backgrounds. In the ’70s, during his Ziggy Stardust era, he rose to superstardom, and was comfortably resting on top of the world with his backing band, The Spiders, led by incendiary glam-rock guitarist Mick Ronson. Comfortably resting, however, was not what Bowie wanted to do. In fact, he had become quite disenchanted with pop rock in general.
During his first U.S. tour in 1973, Bowie made a bold move and recruited Mike Garson as his new piano player. Garson had been a part of the jazz avant-garde scene of New York throughout the ’60s. He was certainly no pop player, but Bowie knew what he was doing. His breathtaking jazz blues inflections, represented a vigorous hybrid somewhere between The Stones and Kurt Weill, and forcibly steered the sound away from rock and roll, becoming a defining feature in Aladdin Sane, which was released later that year.
“Even though The Spiders were the well-known commodity, I was the one getting all the attention,” Garson later claimed about the atmosphere in the studio. The most representative track on this album is the titular one, with its standout defining feature: that deranged piano solo. Simultaneously hinting at familiar tunes such as Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and The Champs’ 1958 hit “Tequila” but mostly driven by an invigorating blend of frenzy and madness, the piano constantly battles with the machinery-like chug of the guitar riff and the obstinate relentlessness of the bass line. This is also representative of Bowie’s vision of old-fashioned romanticism and violent futurism, which was the album’s driving narrative concept. Before letting it rip in one glorious take, Garson tried a blues solo and a Latin one. Both were refused, and Bowie encouraged him to play it in the style of the avant-garde jazz clubs he played in the ’60s.
This is not the only track in the album where Garson shines. On “For Time,” he plays in a modernist take of the stride style of the ’20s; in “Lady Grinning Soul,” he is at his most romantic; in “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” on the other hand, he is on the fringe again, banging away.
Garson would collaborate with Bowie on three subsequent albums. The two would reunite once again on 1993’s soundtrack album to the BBC mini-series The Buddha of Suburbia and keep playing together until Reality (2003). Along with Mick Ronson, Brian Eno, Tony Visconti and Nile Rodgers, Garson is one of Bowie’s greatest collaborators. “I view myself as a window in this man’s career,” said Garson in 1999. “Every time I am not with Bowie, I’m back in the jazz or classical world or a combination of both.”
“It is pointless to talk about his ability as a pianist — he is exceptional,” Bowie observed in 2003, shortly after the release of Reality. “However, there are very, very few musicians, let alone pianists, who naturally understand the movement and free thinking necessary to hurl themselves into experimental or traditional areas of music, sometimes, ironically, at the same time. Mike does this with such enthusiasm that it makes my heart glad to just be in the same room as him.”
If Garson is perhaps to be considered Bowie’s most direct and consistent tie to the world of jazz and avant-garde, he was by no means the only one. On the album Let’s Dance (1983), the trumpeter and three-man saxophone section came straight from the Asbury Jukes ensemble. On Never Let Me Down (1987), he enthused about multi-instrumentalist Erdal Kızılçay’s knowledge of rock music beginning and ending with The Beatles, adding that “his background is really jazz!” In Black Tie White Noise, the horn arrangements were done by Chico O’Farrill. The 70-year-old Afro-Cuban jazz veteran had previously recorded with such greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman, and his work on this album marked somewhat of a renaissance for him. (O’Farrill continued to record and received a Latin Grammy Award nomination a year before his death in 2001.)
Jazz was always there, from the very beginning. Bowie’s very first single “Do Anything You Say” was released in 1966. But perhaps a better choice for its A-side would have been “Good Morning Girl,” the catchy jazz-tinged track, complete with scat-singing chorus, that was recorded as its B-side. Bowie fans will then either cringe or smile at his early novelty tune “The Laughing Gnome,” which is rather symbolic of the aimless dilettantism of the artist’s mid-’60s period. Its “ha ha ha, hee hee hee” laughing chorus was lifted right out of the traditional jazz standard “Little Brown Jug,” popularized by Glenn Miller again in the late ’30s.
The influence persisted as the years progressed, and he became more comfortable with including jazz in his live concerts. During Tin Machine’s It’s My Life tour in 1991, he would occasionally add a few lines from “April in Paris” to their song “Heaven’s In Here.” On the same tour, he celebrated his future wife, Iman, with a suitably modified “October in Paris,” by way of making his marriage proposal.
His endeavor with Tin Machine also provides a perfect example of how he illustrated his enthusiasm for new, less commercial projects, by making reference to jazz. He told one reporter, “There’s a lot of Charles Mingus in there and a lot of Roland Kirk in some more free pieces.”
In 2003, a year after he headlined the Montreux Jazz Festival, through his album Reality, Bowie paid tribute to New York City and the very environs he must have fantasized about decades earlier with his brother Terry. “Downtown was always mythological,” Bowie told the Miami Herald that year. “This is where the beatniks were and the Beat poets, and the early songwriters. Jazz started here as well. It’s a musician writer’s dream to go and live in the village.” Critics agreed it was a sweet collection of songs, driven by its most famous track “Bring Me the Disco King,” a confidently delivered piece of dark New York jazz.
Little did anyone know that this would be his final studio release for 10 years. He made live appearances only sporadically, acted occasionally on film and television, and stopped doing interviews.
Cut to 2015. “You canny bastard. You’re writing a farewell album,” Tony Visconti allegedly told Bowie during the recording of his final album, Blackstar. Bowie simply laughed and shrugged his shoulders. It’s hard to imagine a man like him truly thinking about an end. New reports have revealed that Bowie had indeed demoed a number of tracks that would be included in a future album. So perhaps Blackstar may simply have been a new beginning, a reincarnation, as hinted by the character of “Lazarus,” one of the tracks in the album.
Perhaps, it was simply the ultimate chance for Bowie to visit that old crossroads again, and take a peek at what things might have looked like had he chosen to go down a different path. Since its release, Blackstar has become one of his most successful releases, even becoming his first album to ever reach the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200 chart. We can therefore take this as evidence that he would have been successful either way.