Category Archives: David Bowie

Beyond Now: Donny McCaslin

Spare a thought for the chameleon and, perhaps a little later, after reading further, some praise. Why? Because it was the chameleon that brought us here.

The changeling that I have in mind is the late David Bowie. His 2014 single release, Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) utilised a big band with Donny McCaslin to the fore on tenor saxophone. McCaslin was later to play on Bowie’s Blackstar (which contains a different rock version of Sue without much sax) where he was showcased with a solo on Dollar Days (and to a lesser extent I Can’t Give Everything Away).

Beyond Now was recorded in April 2016 following Bowie’s death in January 2016 and McCaslin states on the sleeve:-
“It was like a dream, except it was something that I could never have dreamed of. David Bowie was a visionary artist whose generosity, creative spirit, and fearlessness will stay with me the rest of my days. This recording is dedicated to him and all who loved him.”

Since the 1970s I’ve always been ready to listen to Bowie because he was a truly innovative and compelling artist. In mid-2014 I looked at a reprise of his Berlin songs recorded by Dylan Howe and it was my favourite contemporary set of the year for 2014. I’m therefore delighted that this jazz saxophonist who worked with Bowie has produced an album that he influenced. Beyond Now, which was released at the end of 2016, will be the first contemporary recording to be reviewed on in 2017.

Proceedings get underway with Shake Loose, a staccato funk piece that offers a great warm-up for McCaslin who covers the full range of his tenor saxophone, from high to low and back again with every stop in between. This could be a set opener as it certainly seizes the attention. I particularly enjoy the second phase, where things slow down a bit, the keyboards come in and longer notes are played.

McCaslin is content to operate as the lead accompanist on A Small Plot of Land, the first of two David Bowie tracks. Jeff Taylor supplies vocals on this ponderous version of a composition which was originally used as background to the funeral of Andy Warhol segment in the film Basquiat. The elegiac quality may possibly go some way to explaining why McCaslin chose to cover it here on an album recorded so soon after Bowie’s passing. It is a good choice, which repays repeated airings and which adds further layer of variety and texture to the album.

I need listeners to help me out on the title track, Beyond Now, as I think McCaslin is playing clarinet on the opening of this fine ballad. Jason Linder gets space to play a rather good piano solo here too.

Coelacanth 1 is a tune originally composed by Grammy Award nominated DJ and producer Deadmau5. McCaslin’s tenor paints a soundscape over long drone notes delivered from the keyboards. It is a contemplative piece in the style of so much that appears on ECM albums by the likes of Jan Gabarek.

On Bright Abyss McCaslin ranges over both the upper and lower registers of his tenor and shows that he is comfortable with the lower notes, which can often expose the limitations of lesser musicians.

McCaslin solos inventively over the increasingly frenzied straight ahead rock rhythms on FACEPLANT (uppercase sic). If Neil Cowley was to collaborate with a saxophonist, DMc would be a shoe-in for the job as this track has the same feel as some of the rockier pieces on Spacebound Apes.

With Warszawa, from Low, David Bowie and Brian Eno took us into new territory that seemed strange and somewhat challenging on a 1970’s rock album. Here, Donny McCaslin’s mournful tenor is played beautifully and this is a worthy homage to The Thin White Duke.

Glory builds slowly towards an engaging keyboard bridging section, before the saxophone comes in with overtones and sparkling upper register runs concluding with an exciting finish.

The Great American Songbook, that loose mishmash canon of jazz standards, is not known to have expanded to include the final track, but perhaps it should. Remain, originally written and recorded by Mutemath, is an exceptionally beautiful ballad, almost wistful in tone and the highlight of the album for me. It is just the sort of tune that Miles Davis could conceivably have chosen to cover in the twilight of his life. It is worth the price of admission to this set by itself. Although there are currently plenty of Donny McCaslin tracks on YouTube, at the time of writing, Remain was not one of them. However, you can hear a short slice of it on the album sampler:-

Treat yourself and play it now courtesy of YouTube. You won’t regret it.

To play, touch or click on the arrow

Donny McCaslin was born in 1966 in Santa Clara, California and was the son of a vibraphonist. He won a full scholarship to the world famous Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1984 before touring with Gary Burton’s band from 1987. In 1991 he replaced the eminent horn player, Michael Brecker in Steps Ahead and in 1998 he recorded the first of his 12 albums released to date. The Bowie link began when he was recommended by composer Maria Schneider and Bowie watched him and his band play in 55 Bar, New York City (which sounds like a must visit place in Greenwich Village). will continue to cover selected contemporary CDs and Beyond Now has certainly got 2017 off to a great start. I wholeheartedly recommend this recording which has confirmed that David Bowie made an excellent choice of saxophonist for his last known projects. Cheers to The Chameleon for that and so much more!

The band etc.:- Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute, alto flute, clarinet); Jason Linder (keyboards); Tim Lefebvre (electric bass); Mark Guiliana (drums); supported by: Jeff Taylor (vocals- track 2); David Binney (additional synths and vocals, tracks 5 & ); Nate Wood (guitar, track 2). Recorded 4-6 April 2016. Systems Two, Brooklyn, New York. Produced by: David Binney. Recording Engineer: Mike Marciano. Mixed by: Nate Wood. Cover photo: Jimmy King. Art Direction and Design: Rebecca Meek. Issued as Motema 234310.

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Dylan Howe: Subterranean- New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin


It was my birthday the other week and I requested a copy of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards- A Guide to The Repertoire. It is an excellent reference book and one that I will dip into with regularity.

In his introduction Gioia considers why he has felt unable to include very few recent compositions amongst the 250 plus tunes that he identifies for his opus. He concludes that: “The jazz repertoire is not as fluid as it once was and the same process of codification that has resulted in works such as The Real Book (a compendium of sheet music for widely recognised jazz tunes, or ‘heads’ as they are known in the trade) has also made it difficult for newer songs to enter the standard repertoire.”

I don’t suppose I’m alone in experiencing irritation when a classic 50’s or 60’s jazz album moves from a track that really has something to say to yet another hoary Broadway number (thank heavens John Coltrane never got round to recording a version of You’ll Never Walk Alone!). Occasionally a jazz artist will have a go with a modern popular song but mostly they draw on the standards.

So, I was intrigued when I read of Dylan Howe’s recording of tunes from David Bowie’s Berlin period. It was a nailed down certainty for my latest look at a contemporary jazz set.

I can remember listening to Low, fresh from the shops and in the possession of a mate who is the biggest Bowie fan I’ve ever met. The songs were great but it was the instrumentals on Side 2 that were so incredibly refreshing and different. There was a stark bleak beauty to them and we dived fathoms deep as we pondered their significance next to Buzzcocks, The Pistols and The Clash. There was a further selection of instrumentals on Heroes, while Lodger was a part of Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, but is sadly, short on instrumental pieces.

This recording was a labour of love for Howe and he raised the money to undertake his project through a Kickstarter crowdfunding effort, which you can read about here.

So to the music. I’ve followed the song title with Bowie album that the original appeared on.

The album opens with Subterraneans (Low) and it is immediately apparent that this is going to be an exceptional recording, initially with Mark Hodgson’s wonderfully rendered double bass to the fore before Ross Stanley adds piano to the underlying layer of syths. Weeping Wall (Low) is as bleak and dolorous as the original before a tasteful piano solo that eases and offers hope, followed by a percussive break that reintroduces tension.

All Saints was a bonus track that did not appear on the original release of Low. This one is like Bowie meets the great quartet of John Coltrane. Julian Siegal and Brandon Allen’s saxophone work is exemplary, with Allen taking the solos. Some Are was recorded by Bowie during the Low sessions but didn’t make the cut for the original album either. It is another minor key piece with a subdued regal feel to it. The saxophonists join in at the midpoint.

The first of two takes on NeuKoln, NeuKoln- Night (Heroes) is next up and takes me in my imagination to the centre of a scurrying and bustling city centre that is unfamiliar and slightly menacing, where there may be danger down those side streets.

Art Decade (Low) seems to convey a sense of ennui and loss. In its long fade out it moves towards a meditative state of calm. Warszawa (Low) could be used as a soundtrack for a film of the aftermath of some destructive action until it takes on a jauntiness and swings out, bringing hope where Bowie left us with none.

Neukoln- Day (Heroes) is lighter than its cousin but it still conjures up an image of a grey, drizzly day, while Moss Garden (Heroes), ever a track I’ve returned to listen to, has obvious attractions for a drummer/percussionist and features Dylan Howe’s famous dad on koto, which is a stringed dulcimer-like instrument.

I’ve enjoyed repeated listens to Subterranean and recommend it strongly. I’m hoping that in due course, the Bowie fan I referred to above may give us a second opinion (I’ve sent him a copy).

Dylan Howe is presenting a series of performances in the UK in September featuring the great Andy Sheppard on tenor saxophone, so you are likely to get my opinion on how this comes over live, in a while.

The following short promo gives a flavour of some of the tracks and publicises the tour. To watch, click or touch the arrow.

The band etc: Dylan Howe (drums); Mark Hodgson (double bass); Ross Stanley (piano, synths); Julienne Siegal (saxophone); Brandon Allen (saxophone); Nick Pini (double bass: Neukoln night & day); Adrian Utley (guitar: Warazawa); Steve Howe (koto- Moss Garden). Released 2014. Recorded: Eastcote Studio, Motorik Studios, Pipe Dream Studios. Produced and Directed: Dylan Howe. Graphic Design: Sleeve photos Zoe Howe, Dylan Howe, Victoria Harley. Issued as Motorik MR1004