PODCAST: Life After Berklee—Donny McCaslin on Recording with David Bowie
When David Bowie H'99 enlisted Donny McCaslin '88 and his jazz quartet as the backing band for what became Bowie's 25th and final album, Blackstar, stylized as ★, the Grammy-nominated saxophonist, composer, and bandleader was ready for the moment.
"David encouraged us to try anything and everything that we heard," McCaslin says of the three weeks he spent recording with Bowie and his longtime producer Tony Visconti early last year, nearly a year before the singer's death. "He said something to me in the beginning like, 'Donny, I don’t know what’s gonna happen with this but let’s just have some fun.'"
A fixture of the New York Jazz scene for nearly 30 years, McCaslin has worked as a bandleader and sideman for the likes of Steps Ahead, Maria Schneider Orchestra, and professor and fellow alumnus Gary Burton '62, whom he began touring with his senior year. "Being at Berklee and thrust into this world where the boundaries of music or styles were pretty fluid, that was really a great experience to help me to broaden my musical language," McCaslin says. It's a dexterity clearly displayed through his contributions on Blackstar as a musician, bandleader, and orchestrator.
"I’m grateful to have been able to be in that space for a prolonged amount of time in relation to the jazz world," McCaslin says. "The joy on David’s face when we would have that take and felt it, everybody was feeling that it was the take and seeing the joy on his face was very moving to me. It was beautiful."
In this episode of Life After Berklee, just weeks after the album's release and shock of Bowie's death, McCaslin talks about recording with Bowie, and how he and his jazz quartet from New York City became the rock legend's final backing band.