Donny McCaslin’s career will forever be divided into two distinct eras: before Blackstar and after. David Bowie famously recruited the jazz saxophonist and his band after catching them at New York’s 55 Bar in 2014, and they would end up backing the icon throughout his final album. Though McCaslin already had about three decades of professional experience up to that point, for many listeners, he registered as an emerging star.
By that logic, Blow. almost seems like a new debut for the 51-year-old. Its largely instrumental predecessor, 2016’s Beyond Now, McCaslin’s first post-Blackstar effort, paid homage to Bowie via a couple covers; this new album channels his influence in a less literal yet ultimately more impressive way. On Blow., McCaslin and fellow Blackstar collaborators Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre, Mark Guiliana and Ben Monder, among others, step boldly into hybrid, tough-to-classify musical terrain, grafting their trademark sleek, emotive electrojazz onto lush, proggy art rock.
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That the mix feels largely seamless owes a lot to guest singers and co-songwriters Ryan Dahle and Jeff Taylor — who lend their high, idiosyncratic voices to four and two tracks, respectively — and Gail Ann Dorsey, Bowie’s longtime bassist and backup vocalist, who appears on stripped-down, soulful closer “Eye of the Beholder.” (Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek also turns up for the fun but slight story-song “The Opener.”)
There are instrumental tracks here too, including the excellent “Break the Bond,” but McCaslin isn’t leaning on any jazz bona fides: The songs themselves, especially crafty, hooky tracks like the Dahle-sung “What About the Body” and the Taylor-featuring “Tiny Kingdom,” are the focus. And for the most part, they hold up, showing strong potential for future McCaslin explorations in this area. What better way to pay tribute to a legendary shapeshifter than to go all in on a full sonic reboot?