NO RETRO

David Bowie Does Jazz His Way

Pop’s premier chameleon has released Blackstar, an album stocked with some of the best jazz musicians now working. It’s not exactly jazz, but it’s moving all the same.

01.06.16 6:15 PM ET

David Bowie has reinvented himself again and again over the course of a crazy-quilt half-century plus career. There have been so many strange ch-ch-ch-changes in his public persona, I’ve lost count. But which performer is the real Mr. Bowie?

Is it the futuristic sci-fi rocker of Space Oddity? Or the gender-bending Ziggy Stardust who strutted the stage in the early ’70s? Or maybe the progressive artist who collaborated with Brian Eno on those pathbreaking Berlin Trilogy albums a few years later? And what about Bowie the actor, or Bowie the film composer, or Bowie the mastermind behind an Off-Broadway musical?

And in the year 2016 are you ready for David Bowie the jazz performer?

The music world has been buzzing for months about this bold new venture timed for release on Bowie’s 69th birthday. The album Blackstar has been featured on almost every list I’ve seen of “highly anticipated” 2016 releases—quite an achievement for any musician, but especially a senior citizen who is issuing his 25th studio album. Yet if anyone can reinvent himself one more time at the close of his seventh decade, it’s David Bowie.

The first hints of the “new Bowie” came in the summer of 2014, when the singer embarked on a New York studio project with Maria Schneider’s jazz orchestra. I’m not sure what I expected from this unusual collaboration. But when the resulting track “Sue” went viral in October 2014, I found its feverish soundscapes defied almost any pre-existing formula for jazz-rock fusion.

Schneider is the most creative jazz arranger on the planet, and specializes in subtle tone colors and sweeping melodies. Indeed, I don’t think it’s inappropriate to use that unfashionable word beautiful to describe her musical vision. But prodded by Bowie’s dark lyrics—with references to gravestones, medical X-rays, and nameless crimes—Schneider constructed an angst-ridden score, with a kind of Wagnerian/Kentonian shouting I’d never heard from her before. Bowie’s vocal was equally unsettling, impassioned but pushing to that liminal point where passion turns to pain.

I didn’t quite know what to make of this music, which was compelling but uncategorizable. Bowie soon parted ways with Schneider, and I concluded that “Sue” had been a brief detour from his commercial career, a random experiment, and that he would soon move on to other pursuits. But a few months ago, stories circulated about him getting deeper into jazz. He was assembling some of the finest talents in the idiom, and no matter what you thought of the former glam rocker, you had to give him credit for the caliber of players he was enlisting—including saxophonist Donny McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, and drummer Mark Guiliana.  

Then again, those who have followed Bowie’s career closely know that his interest in jazz is no recent development. He learned saxophone during his teens, and around this same time his half-brother Terry Burns, a jazz fanatic, introduced him to the work of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. Bowie fans rarely got to see this side of their art rock hero, but it occasionally emerged in unexpected settings. Check out, for example, the bizarre YouTube video of Bowie singing a duet with Bing Crosby—which, against all expectations, hits the mark. And for a very different encore, listen to his work with that other Bowie, jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie (no relation) on his 1993 album Black Tie White Noise.

But now Bowie’s 2016 jazz album, Blackstar, has finally arrived. And what are we to make of it? The most striking aspect of this project is how little Bowie adapts to a jazz sensibility. The musicians on hand might be schooled in the leading jazz styles, but Bowie comes from a different galaxy. He clearly is setting the rules here, and they require his virtuosic bandmates to adjust to the boss’s aesthetic vision.

Sting did something similar back in the mid ’80s. He hired hot jazz players, and got them to play rock—and they played it well! But even Sting was forced out of his comfort zone during these years, and his vision was subtly influenced by his jazzcat collaborators. I don’t hear that in Bowie’s new album. There is hardly a vocal phrase or chord progression on this project that I would call jazzy.

The harmonies are spacey and static—lots of vamps and two-chord back-and-forth progressions. The melodies are mostly simple diatonic ditties. The lyrics are very dark and melancholy, at times poetic, but still in an art rock vein.

Yet the musicians play with fire and conviction. Mark Guiliana’s drumming gives Bowie a kick in the pants, and is a major contributor to the album’s emotional charge. Saxophonist McCaslin doesn’t hold back, showing little inclination to serve up sweet crossover sounds for aging rock fans. Listen to him wail on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” and “Dollar Days.” If you are a jazz fan, you may decide that his horn lines are the high point of the album—although I have a hunch that producer Tony Visconti deliberately brought them down in the mix, perhaps fearing that something so hot might scare away the nostalgia rock crowd.

“Having jazz guys play rock music turns it upside down," Visconti recently remarked. That comment captures the essence of this album. The jazz players shake things up. They serve as subversive insurgents pushing at the limits of the structures Bowie has imposed upon them. Clearly he thrives on the resulting creative tension.

In any event, people on a nostalgia trip won’t find much to savor here. Blackstar has none of the retro jazz trappings of so many recent crossover projects (most notably the Lady Gaga/Tony Bennett collaboration). And if you are hoping for a taste of old Bowie, guess again. This is new Bowie. He has no interest in looking backward. I suspect he hired these jazz masters because he craves the kind of self-reinvention that has become his stock-in-trade.

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Even so, Blackstar does possess a valedictory quality. The music captures the mood of a man looking back on his life, perhaps with a large dose of grief and misgiving. The tracks are powerful and hypnotic, but with hardly a hint of joy. I predict that Bowie fans with open ears will respond enthusiastically to the raw honesty on display here. This is confessional music, from someone who has much to confess. But those expecting another “rock star discovers jazz” album, in the mold of those kitschy Rod Stewart cabaret tracks, will be disappointed.

Maybe Bowie will embrace the nostalgia act next year or next decade. But right now he is still expanding his range and raising the ante. No, Blackstar isn’t jazz party music. Nor is it crossover music aimed at market expansion. These are ambitious rock tone poems, played with brutal insistence, and enlivened by a world-class supporting cast. I doubt Bowie will stay in this place for long—he never has in the past—but for the time being, he’s caught my attention. I can’t help wondering what he will do for an encore.

My hope is that he will continue down this path for several more albums. I’d like to see him engage in a long-term dialogue with Schneider, McCaslin, and company. Even better, perhaps he could include more of their musical concepts in his compositions. He’s a smart fellow, David, with a first-rate musical mind. With the right kind of give-and-take, he might even find himself setting off another musical revolution in his seventies. He’s certainly found the right crew to go along with him on that journey.