The Inside Story of David Bowie’s Stunning New Album, ‘Blackstar’
One Sunday night in the spring of 2014, David Bowie walked into 55 Bar, a 96-year-old jazz joint tucked away on a quiet side street in New York’s West Village. A friend, jazz bandleader Maria Schneider, had suggested he check out the night’s headliner, a quartet led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Bowie grabbed a table near the stage and took in a set of exploratory jazz, then left without speaking to the band. “A server was like, ‘Wait, was that David Bowie?'” McCaslin says. “It started dawning on people.”
Ten days later, McCaslin got an email: Bowie wanted him and his drummer Mark Guiliana to join him in the studio. “I thought, ‘This is David Bowie, and he chose me, and he’s sending me an email?'” McCaslin says. “I tried not to think about it too much. I just wanted to stay in the moment and just do the work [he wanted].” That work, initially, was only one song: the trippy, jazz-infused “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” which Bowie released on his 2014 compilation album, Nothing Has Changed.
Then, last January, Bowie called McCaslin’s entire group to the downtown studio Magic Shop to begin work on his 25th album, ★ (pronounced Blackstar), which is due out on January 8th, Bowie’s 69th birthday. “It did surprise me,” says Guiliana of being asked to play on the album. “But I feel like he’s built a career and artistic identity on surprises. It falls in line with who he is as an artist.”
The seeds of ★ date to mid-2014, when Bowie met with longtime producer Tony Visconti and drummer Zack Alford to cut some demos at Magic Shop. Then Bowie disappeared for five months to work on the new material at his house. “He’s got a little setup there,” says Visconti. “And there was no clear communication from him until December. That’s when he told me he was ready to make the album.”
Two years ago, Bowie released his first album in nearly decade, the relatively traditional (by Bowie standards) rock album The Next Day, which he cut with Visconti and members of his old touring band. For ★, he was determined to do something very different. “We were listening to a lot of Kendrick Lamar,” says Visconti. “We wound up with nothing like that, but we loved the fact Kendrick was so open-minded and he didn’t do a straight-up hip-hop record. He threw everything on there, and that’s exactly what we wanted to do. The goal, in many, many ways, was to avoid rock & roll.”
McCaslin and his bandmates were able to handle whatever Bowie threw at them, from Krautrock to hip-hop to pop to jazz, creating an incredible fusion sound that can’t be pinned to any one genre. “They can play something at the drop of a dime,” says Visconti. “[Keyboardist] Jason [Lindner] was a godsend. We gave him some pretty far-out chords, but he brought a jazz sensibility to re-voice them.” They cut the album on ProTools, though much of the gear was vintage. “Jason’s synthesizer didn’t have a computer with souped-up programs like Omnisphere on it,” Visconti says. “He would just do it with guitar pedals, making all the sounds unique. We’re like old school like that. Also, [bassist] Tim Lefebvre was just phenomenal to work with. He pretty much nailed every take right on the spot.”