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Jeff Miers’ Soundcheck: Bowie, ‘Blackstar,’ ‘Blow,’ and the legacy of musical bravery

Jeff Miers

David Bowie released “Blackstar” on Jan. 8, 2016. Two days later, he succumbed to liver cancer. This was always going to make “Blackstar” an album viewed through an emotionally skewed lens. That any true Bowie fan would have to place the album in the upper echelon of Bowie’s artistic accomplishments made it even more so.

Three years later, we see that “Blackstar” is a gift that keeps on giving, for the musicians Bowie summoned to aid him in crafting his masterful swan song have gone on to create some of the most ambitious, genre-defying, and bravely eclectic music of our recent time. One has little trouble picturing Bowie, somewhere out there, smiling.

The backstory: Bowie was given to exploring the New York City he called home like a “normal person,” and one of his favorite pastimes involved scouring the vibrant local scene in search of musical inspiration. One evening in 2014, acting on a tip from his friend, the jazz composer and band-leader Maria Schneider, he stopped into the 55 Bar, where he took in a set from the Donny McCaslin Quartet.

A week later,  McCaslin received an email requesting his presence at a Bowie recording session. Soon, saxophonist McCaslin, drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre and keyboardist Jason Lindner were deep into the process of working with Bowie to create “Blackstar.” They'd eventually win a Grammy for their efforts.

[Related: The lessons we can take from David Bowie's life]

Jason Lindner, Mark Guiliana, Donny McCaslin, and Tim Lefebvre, co-winners of Best Alternative Music Album for David Bowie's 'Blackstar'. (Getty Images)

In the time since, all four have been involved in making fascinating music that bears the mark of Bowie’s adventurous artistic spirit. It seems that “Blackstar” was a catalyst for the work they’ve done since.

“I think that ‘Blackstar’ was a powerful impetus to dig deeper on our own projects,” Lefebvre told me this week. “Bowie encouraged bravery and individuality, without expressly saying it to us. And so I was like, ‘Well no one is selling records, really, so why not do a brave and adventurous record?’”

Lefebvre, though his steadiest gig is with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, is referring to Whose Hat Is This? – a band he formed with fellow Tedeschi Trucks members saxophonist Kebbi Williams and drummers JJ Johnson & Tyler Greenwell, whose freshly released “Everything’s OK” is the very definition of “brave and adventurous.”

Lefebvre also produced and performed on wife Rachel Eckroth’s new “When It Falls,” which includes a sultry, atmospheric and haunting take on Bowie’s “Love Is Lost.”

Rachel Eckroth's "When It Falls" includes a soul-stirring take on Bowie's "Love Is Lost." (Photo by Shervin Lainez)

It seems that Lefebvre’s band-mates took their time with Bowie as a mandate to venture further and dig deeper, as well. McCaslin’s recently released “Blow” is a bold mash-up of a record that stretches the limits of what has traditionally been called jazz; Drummer Guiliana formed Space Heroes, a twin-horn quartet pushing the outer limits of modern jazz; Keyboardist Lindner’s latest release with his band Now Vs. Now, “The Buffering Cocoon,” marries jazz harmonies to electronic music grooves with fearless intensity.

“Genre-mashing isn't something new for any of us,” Lefebvre told me. “There is a wave of musicians doing this already, like Thundercat, Louis Cole and Machine Girl. For me, in my music and sound conception - playing and producing -  I'm not afraid of dark sounds and dark content. ‘Blackstar’ was exactly that to many people, in the best possible way.”

McCaslin told the Berkshire Eagle in a recent interview that “the course of my life... changed when I met David... Working with him introduced me to an artistic genius, a kind man and a funny-as-hell guy. In one email during the early stages of recording 'Blackstar,' he sent me the following message: 'Donny, the structure of the song is sound, but now we need to throw a penlight beam on the rest like a P.I. scouting a motel room. I'm so excited I just vomited up a 1967 Mercedes.' That's how it was with him: collaborative, funny and always ready to try new things."

That’s a legacy Bowie would surely be proud of.

(Getty Images)


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