David Bowie gave us one last masterpiece: ★ (pronounced “Blackstar”). And true to form, it leaves us with more questions than answers. I began writing this review before Davie Bowie died, and the work becomes that much more powerful when you realize he knew it would be his last. The whole album is an almost alien journey through the center of the Blackstar formed by an epic–in every sense of the word–collision of an older pop star going supernova and a neighboring system of younger stellar bodies.
Many folks have been shocked by the musical content of this release, but those familiar with the Donny McCaslin Quartet and the guitar rendering of Ben Monder have found more of the same sticky grooves, more of the same crunchy harmonies. Don’t get me wrong: Bowie wrote the music and lyrics, recorded the demos for the band to rehearse with, and chose the personnel (from musician to technician and those in between). In that sense, it is definitely a David Bowie album. But similar to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly, what has surprised so many seems to be that jazz musicians are at home playing any style of music with any artist at any given time. Indeed, most Western music has its roots in 20th century jazz; so, why wouldn’t they be?
The album softly opens like a flower with the feeling that something was already constructing itself underneath before blooming into existence. Like a flipped switch, the swagger of Mark Guiliana’s drums and the weight of Tim Lefebvre’s bass snaps the aesthetic of this album into place. The second half of the two-part suite that makes up the first track reminds us that Bowie’s music is defined by catchy melodies that don’t lack creativity or substance.
The following song, “‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”, does a great job of walking the line between catchy and otherworldly by combining a snappy, upbeat song with something much more sinister. With musical tags things like Bowie’s prickly sexual lyrics that borrow language from Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Donny McCaslin’s demented circus saxophone lines, it’s pretty obvious this song isn’t all pep and lilting melody. This is also an excellent opportunity to discuss the flexibility of the rhythm section; sandwiched between two tracks that require interpretation and improvisation, this track features Guiliana and bassist Tim Lefebvre (Tedeschi Trucks Band) laying down the rock solid foundation of a repetitious beat that just begs to be danced to.
As the album continues to unfurl and embeds itself deeper into the observer’s psyche, it becomes more obvious that Bowie played the role of an older Kobe Bryant; he sets the tone, creates the structure and opportunities, and then lets the other four (and sometimes five) flex their awesome ability within his creation. There’s no better example of the aforementioned phenomenon than “Lazarus”. McCaslin GOES. IN. on his feature, and while it’s hard to imagine the track being that exciting without him, it’s still Bowie’s framework he’s operating within.
“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” sounds like the theme song to an old-school secret agent movie, and it so happens to be the next evolution of a song that helped to bring the Donny McCaslin Quartet into this whole project. The first version of this song was originally recorded by Bowie with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and Bowie seemed to originally have wanted that group for this album. However, it wasn’t in the cards, and McCaslin (a soloist with the Maria Schneider Orchestra) was contacted to bring in his quartet. Had this same set of songs been recorded with Schneider’s group, it would’ve been a radically different aesthetic and energy level. I’m happy with the way it turned out.
By this point, it’s no secret that Bowie was seriously checking out Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 release To Pimp a Butterfly and Guiliana’s BEAT MUSIC The Los Angeles Improvisations from 2014. The track that speaks this most plain is “Girl Loves Me”. It doesn’t take much imagination to hear Lamar’s yet unwritten verses seamlessly interlocking with the thumping groove, and it takes exactly zero imagination to hear Guiliana’s influence since he’s the drummer on the album. Jason Lindner brings another heavy sound influence with his unending permutations of what it means to play the keyboard.
“Dollar Days” is every saxophonist’s dream; a loping rock ballad with ponderous vocals over which McCaslin is given free reign to be the badass that he is. The extremely contained range of Bowie’s melody and the consistent push from the rhythm section are the perfect foils for the raucous saxophone solo. With a well-aged rock star playing with younger jazz musicians and cheery melodies set to dark and twisted lyrics, it’s clear juxtapositions are a huge part of this album’s identity.
David Bowie’s work has consistently been about empathizing with and humanizing the other, the alien, the freak. His art seeks to connect, rather than to divide. In this light, it makes perfect sense why he chose to create his final farewell with a group of musicians at the top of an art form that has done the same for over a century. Thank you for all you’ve given us, David Bowie. Even if you weren’t able to give everything away, it was more than we deserved.