Donny McCaslin had been an influential and infectious presence in jazz circles for well over two decades before working with David Bowie on his devastating final album, Blackstar. After playing in a band with his father, a vibraphonist, and joining the fusion group Steps Ahead in the mid-90s, McCaslin set himself apart as an impressive soloist and improvisor on a run of solo records that began with Exile and Discovery in 1998 and wandered into more complex songwriting on 2009’s Declaration. Listen back to anything from that era, and you’ll hear a musician in perfect control of the chaos he was generating.
He went to new places, however, on 2012’s rugged and unconventional Casting for Gravity a crunchier, harsher, take on jazz that featured at least one metal breakdown. (Honest.) Bowie reportedly listened to that record intently before inviting McCaslin in to play on the brooding and rifle-quick single “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime).” Bowie, fascinated by jazz’s return to the public consciousness, wanted his 25th studio album to play with the sort of palette—with a few more dark hues—that McCaslin was dipping into.
Bowie gave McCaslin free rein—”Donny, I don’t know what’s going to come of this, but let’s have some fun,” he was told—and Blackstar, a poignant and clear-eyed final statement, was a unique success, an album that presented an icon in a new light at the end. On the poetically frank “Dollar Days,” McCaslin’s two renegade solos pick up where Bowie’s vocals die down, carrying the narrative arc (“I’m dying to(o)”) without words.
McCaslin’s new album, Blow., out October 5 on Motéma Music, is still, just about, a jazz album, at least in places. But the art rock oddities of Blackstar are taking over. It’s rich and unpredictable, and the near ever-presence of vocals—in particular from Age of Electric/Limblifter singer Ryan Dahle—turns the sound on its head. The lead-off single, “What About the Body,” is a fine introduction to all that, but it’s one of the more conventional songs on the album.
“The Opener,” a far less conventional song fronted by Mark Kozelek (as Sun Kil Moon), is premiering above. Like most of Kozelek’s work since his 2014 Sun Kil Moon record Benji, it’s a stream-of-consciousness spoken word track delivered so casually that it can lull the listener into stasis. “I got off the plane at the Tampa airport and walked outside into the Florida sunshine / And I was met by a tall, grungy, redheaded promoter guy, and his shaved-headed friend who was along for the ride,” Kozelek says at the top. It comes out like a cross between a pub story and a detailed journal entry: he avoids conversation, watches a boxing match on a motel TV, flashes forward to the next day’s soundcheck, remembers that the show was “awful,” remembers hearing that the opening act disliked him, and barely raises his voice above a croak.
As he did on “Dollar Days” with Bowie, McCaslin takes over from Kozelek when he stops to pause/think/breathe/remember the rest of the story. But rather than trail off with a freewheeling solo, he mirrors the vocalist’s moroseness with a slowed-down eight-note riff. He backs off and leaves the supple drums to punctuate Kozelek’s nerve-wracking and humiliating conclusion. With McCaslin on hand, all that mouldy motel darkness becomes oddball film noir.
McCaslin and Kozelek will release an full-length project alongside Dirty Three drummer Jim White next year, and one song from the record, the 15-minute-long “Day In America,” is already out there. Before that emerges, pre-order Blow., one of the year’s most surprising albums, here.
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