Imagine you’re playing with your band in a jazz bar in Greenwich Village, as you have done for many years previous, when a reclusive cultural icon rocks up to your show and – so impressed is he by the musicianship skills on display – he announces that he’d like to use your group to play on his next record. This is what happened to Donny McCaslin and his band when the late, great David Bowie attended one of their shows in 2014. It’s a dream scenario for any band but McCaslin’s group seemed like a perfect fit. Coming from an experimental jazz-fusion background, they proved to be ideal collaborative partners in the creation of Bowie’s bold vision for his final album, Blackstar. Now, it’s nigh on impossible to imagine what sort of album that might have been if McCaslin and company weren’t on board.
In a small studio space hidden away in a corner of the vast National Concert Hall, we can see immediately what Bowie had encountered that night. McCaslin is the engine of the group, his fluid playing bringing myriad dimensions and wringing odd squeaks and sounds from his tenor saxophone. The band may operate under his name alone but this is a collective where each member brings something special to the table. Switching between an array of sequencers, keyboards and classical piano, Jason Lindner adds layers of emotional nuance to the physical energy of the music, especially his gorgeous interlude on ‘Glory’. Tim Lefebvre’s plucky bass-lines prove a melodic counterpoint to the mercurial, cymbal-bashing drumming. Yet, what may appear chaotic and loosely improvisational at first sight is deceivingly coherent, especially on ‘Shake Loose’ and ‘Bright Abyss’. Despite the apparent juxtaposition of sonic textures and an ever-changing tempo, the centre always holds because there is real genius at work here.
Much of tonight’s setlist is in tribute to Bowie yet, somewhat surprisingly, there are no outings for anything from Blackstar. Instead, we get a cover of ‘Art Decade’ from Low which is in itself a small consolation. Yet we are treated to so many reminders of Blackstar’s motifs within McCaslin’s own compositions – namely that superlative control of saxophone and the fluidity of the drumming – that, ultimately, it scarcely matters. Forget Bowie, it’s high time to appreciate this extraordinarily talented collective entirely on their own terms. It’s what he would have wanted.