Donny McCaslin couldn’t fight it. The ghost of David Bowie lingers over nearly every aspect of the jazz saxophonist’s latest album, “Beyond Now.”
“I was thinking a lot about David when we were recording,” 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.”
That’s what happens when you work with Bowie on what would become the pop icon’s final album. In early 2015, McCaslin and the rest of his quartet — pianist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana — backed Bowie on “Blackstar.” In July 2015, a few months after finishing the record, McCaslin began writing original music for his “Beyond Now.” Two days after “Blackstar” was released in January 2016, Bowie died.
“Making ‘Blackstar’ was a profound experience for all of us, and part of that was spending a lot of time together in the studio playing David’s music, and so I think, as a result of that, the interaction in the band and everything deepened,” McCaslin says. “That was something I really wanted to have documented and chronicled on ‘Beyond Now.’ And then, of course, David’s influence is there because of the timing of everything.”
McCaslin, a longtime fixture on the New York jazz scene, wouldn’t get into the studio to record “Beyond Now” until April of last year. The result, released in October, plays as both an extension of “Blackstar,” which won five Grammys last month, and an homage. McCaslin’s originals — like “Shake Loose,” “Glory” and the title track — pick up where “Blackstar” left off, with McCaslin’s shrieking sax leading hard-charging, often obtuse compositions that blur the line between jazz, rock and electronica.
After Bowie died, McCaslin decided to add two Bowie covers to the mix: 1977’s “Warzsawa” and 1995’s “A Small Plot of Land.” McCaslin also often plays an instrumental version of “Blackstar’s” “Lazarus” in concert, extending the haunting song with improvisation.
Still, he doesn’t view the album, which also features left-field covers of Deadmau5’s “Coelacanth 1” and Mutemath’s “Remain,” as a tribute to Bowie.
“That doesn’t feel like the right word to me,” he says. “It felt more like this is inspired by him. This is dedicated to him and all the people who love him.”
When Donny McCaslin plays Blues Alley on Monday, he’ll be missing two of his “Blackstar” bandmates. Bassist Tim Lefebvre, who is on tour with Tedeschi Trucks Band, will be replaced by Groove Collective’s Jonathan Maron, and drummer Mark Guiliana will be replaced by Nate Wood. The saxophonist is also arriving in D.C. early to sit in with composer Maria Schneider — who co-wrote “Blackstar’s” “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” and recommended McCaslin to Bowie — at the Kennedy Center (2700 F St. NW; Sat., 7 p.m., sold out; 9 p.m., $60).
Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW; Mon., 8 & 10 p.m., $35.
Exclusive: Donny McCaslin curated a playlist of his favorite David Bowie songs for Apple Music. Stream it below: