SFJAZZ.org | Donny McCaslin and Mark Guiliana: The David Bowie Connection

On The Corner Masthead

DONNY MCCASLIN & Mark Guiliana

August 18, 2023 | by Rusty Aceves

Donny McCaslin Quartet (L-R): Jason Lindner, Tim LeFebvre, Donny McCaslin, Mark Guiliana

On 9/22, two artists with direct ties to a major milestone in pop culture perform in a double bill. In this article, we take a closer look at the careers of saxophonist Donny McCaslin and drummer Mark Guiliana, and their shared connection to the late rock icon David Bowie.

The career path of saxophonist Donny McCaslin has taken sharp twists and turns since the Santa Clara native began his life as a musician, performing with his vibraphonist father’s band at age 12, playing in the band at Aptos High School, and studying with SFJAZZ High School All-Stars director Paul Contos.

A full ride to Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music in 1984 put McCaslin on the fast track to major name status in jazz, and a four-year stint with vibraphonist, educator and peerless talent scout Gary Burton led to New York and work with Steps Ahead, the Gil Evans Orchestra, Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Antonio Sánchez, and perhaps most consequentially, bandleader and composer Maria Schneider.

From the late 90s, McCaslin has recorded a series of edgy, hyper-modern albums for the Arabesque and Sunnyside labels as well as Douglas’ homegrown Greenleaf imprint that expanded from a basis in angular post-bop to embrace electronics and influences from EDM producers including Baths and Boards of Canada. During this dramatic shift in aesthetic focus, the saxophonist was working on and off with Schneider, whose 2004 Concert in the Garden and 2015 The Thompson Fields sessions earned McCaslin two of his three GRAMMY nominations.

Donny McCaslin and David Bowie (photo by Jimmy King)

Schneider’s collaboration with David Bowie on the late pop giant’s track “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” from his 2014 compilation album Nothing Has Changed brought McCaslin and Guiliana to Bowie’s attention, and a surreptitious visit to New York’s 55 Bar in the spring of 2014 to hear McCaslin’s working quartet with Guiliana, keyboardist Jason Lindner, and bassist Tim LeFebvre cemented Bowie’s decision to employ them for his next, and tragically last, masterpiece.

Ten days after Bowie’s visit to the 55 Bar, McCaslin received an email that would mark a milestone in his career. As he told Rolling Stone, “I thought, 'This is David Bowie, and he chose me, and he's sending me an email?'”

In January of 2015, work began on the album that would be called Blackstar (stylized as “★”) at Manhattan’s (now closed) Magic Shop studio. The quartet, with contributions by maverick guitarist Ben Monder, LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy, and longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, brought a darkly evocative energy and tight ensemble sound to Bowie’s compositions, blending influences of hip-hop, ambient soundscaping, and open improvisation into a singular sonic language.

On the album, McCaslin’s tenor brings a bracing commentary that provides both an emotionally raw counterpoint to Bowie’s more anguished vocals and a softening balm in gentler moments of reflection, while Guiliana supplies Blackstar’s heartbeat — a skittering, relentlessly driving and powerfully agile framework upon which the arrangements float and expand.

Bowie succumbed to liver cancer in January 2016, two days after the release of Blackstar, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard chart and received five GRAMMY awards, winning in all categories for which it was nominated. The album has attained a nearly mythic status as a late career masterwork that found Bowie seemingly coming to terms with his impending mortality while exploring a dizzying new avenue of expression. A towering figure whose career has been defined by a constant series of dramatic artistic reinventions, Bowie offered a sublimely conceived and decidedly adventurous transformation as his final gift to the world.

Accepting Bowie’s GRAMMY for Best Rock Performance for Blackstar, McCaslin said: “The course of my life as an artist and person changed when I met David. I’m a better artist and a better person for having known him.”

“A drummer around whom a cult of admiration has formed” (The New York Times), Mark Guiliana is one of the definitive rhythm makers of the modern age. Influenced in equal measure by jazz giants Tony Williams and Elvin Jones as well as electronic music luminaries Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, the New Jersey native has developed a singular style possessed of both a jazz master’s dexterous fluidity and the dance-inspiring jackhammer beats of EDM in equal measure. His ongoing collaboration with McCaslin has stretched over 13 years and a half dozen recordings including the saxophonist’s latest session and Edition Records debut, 2023’s I Want More

Guiliana has built a career marked by a succession of singular collaborators including Brad Mehldau, Meshell Ndegeocello, Avishai Cohen, Dave Douglas, Gretchen Parlato, Lionel Loueke, and most recently St. Vincent, and he leads both an acoustic jazz quartet and his electro-acoustic Beat Music project. DownBeat described 2019’s Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! as “levels of ever-changing live and looped music, traversing landscapes of futurism, euphoria and the imaginary”, and showcases the leader’s masterful mix of electronic textures and acoustic drumming.

In the years following their work on Blackstar, both McCaslin and Guiliana have honored the legacy of David Bowie through their albums and performances, including a January 2016 stint at the Village Vanguard with the Blackstar quartet that was dedicated to Bowie. McCaslin’s 2016 Motema release Beyond Now features resonant covers of Bowie’s 1995 Outside track “A Small Plot of Land” and “Warszawa” from his epochal 1977 album Low, and most recently, the saxophonist has been leading a 65-piece orchestra in performances of Bowie’s music dubbed Blackstar Symphony.

Guiliana’s first post-Blackstar solo album, the 2017 acoustic quartet session Jersey, features an emotional take on “Where Are We Now?” from Bowie’s 2013 comeback The Next Day with vocals by the band along with his wife, singer Gretchen Parlato, and his young son. His latest album is the 2022 Edition Records release appropriately titled The Sound of Listening.

Mark Guiliana

Donny McCaslin and his quartet (with Kneebody drummer and multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood) performs in a double bill with Mark Guiliana's Beat Music on 9/22. Tickets available here. The concert will be broadcast on sfjazz.org as part of the Fridays Live series. More information here

Originally posted on May 18, 2017, updated August 2023.

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