All Classical Radio James Depreist

Moments of companionship: Saxophonist Donny McCaslin and the Blackstar Symphony perform David Bowie’s final album with Oregon Symphony

McCaslin, also the touring show’s artistic director, discusses his time recording with the singer and working to bring “Blackstar” to the symphony.

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John Cameron Mitchell performing David Bowie's "Blackstar." Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony.
John Cameron Mitchell performing David Bowie’s “Blackstar.” Photo courtesy of Oregon Symphony.

It’s old news that David Bowie’s final album Blackstar came out in January 2016, two days before Bowie died of cancer at 69 years old. Of course, his swansong LP, which Rolling Stone called his “best ever,” never spun out live concerts. Bowie kept his declining health a secret until the end of his life, so who knew there would be no more Bowie appearances? And why is “Blackstar” the album’s name? Is it a word associated with mortality and immortality? Perhaps the best explanation came from Blackstar producer and longtime Bowie collaborator Tony Visconti, who called the album “a parting gift” – and a gift that keeps on giving with the run of Blackstar Symphony.

You won’t see Bowie live or alive this time around, but you’ll have a chance to experience a re-imagination of his final work with “Blackstar Symphony: The Music of David Bowie with John Cameron Mitchell” on Thursday, Feb. 22, at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. A 65-person Oregon Symphony group will play such evergreen Bowie hits as “Life on Mars,” “Space Oddity” and “Heroes”— alas, not “Changes” — along with the entire Blackstar album. Calling Bowie’s LP an “emotionally vulnerable performance,” Blackstar Symphony artistic director and saxophonist Donny McCaslin said in an interview from his Brooklyn home that Bowie’s last songs are on “another level – they are in another zone aesthetically” from his previous work.

So sit tight for the familiar classics stretching over the decades in the later part of the show, and expect the entire 2016 album’s tunes to kick off the 90-minute program with no intermission.

A cast of creatives

Accompanying singers include Bowie bandmate Gail Ann Dorsey, David Poe and multi-talented actor/producer/etc. John Cameron Mitchell, who could pass for a young Bowie from certain angles. Conducted by Tim Davies, the mega-concert aims to celebrate the late contemporary star who could shape-shift into different personas, genders and musical styles. In the process, Bowie constantly won over pop listeners and regularly appealed to die-hard fans of other musical genres.

The show’s cast of arrangers is awe-inspiring with Maria Schneider, Vince Mendoza, Davies, Visconti, Jules Buckley, Jamshied Sharifi and Michael Dudley. The line-up of instrumentalists aside from the Oregon Symphony is equally impressive. They include keyboardist Jason Linder, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and saxophonist McCaslin, all of whom backed Bowie on the Blackstar LP, along with drummer Nate Wood. 

Still, the vision and artistry of McCaslin, a relentlessly energetic, innovative and personable sax player, expand the show far beyond an album review or greatest-hits recap. The symphony project is logistically complex with upcoming performances in Seattle on Feb. 23, and later in Charleston, S.C. and at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center. The 2022 world premiere was in Charlotte, N.C. With so many moving parts, people and places, the show might not have gone on, or continued, without the persistence of McCaslin’s determination to spread Bowie’s spirit and music. 

Lightbulb in the Netherlands

McCaslin approached the idea of a symphonic large-scale show in 2019 when playing from his LP, Blow, in the Netherlands with Jules Buckley and his innovative jazz-pop-strings-loaded Metropole Orchestra. “Jules eventually became my co-conspirator,” in creating the symphony project, McCaslin said. 

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McCaslin was perfect for the job, living up to one critic’s definition of the innovative saxophonist as “David Bowie’s David Bowie.” McCaslin is flattered by the comparison, but not so flattered to deny its truth. “I’m not afraid to keep evolving, to change, to look for new ways of doing things — to try different styles of music and mix it with musical language. We play around with electronics, improvisation, experimentation, hybrid styles. The language keeps evolving. We have the courage to do something different. … There’s a lot of courage in taking risks, and David embodied that. I feel like I’m going for it. David embodies that.” 

McCaslin’s most recent among his 14 albums as a leader is I Want More on Edition Records, another statement about being in the moment, and trusting that spontaneity and creativity will lead to something new, in the spirit of Bowie. “I know if I’m uncomfortable, I’m on to something,” McCaslin said.

Sax master

McCaslin, 57, has been playing sax since he was a Santa Clara, Calif. kid and gigged in his vibes- and piano-playing dad Don McCaslin’s band, Warmth. The younger McCaslin moved on and eastward, working out of New York after graduating on full scholarship from Berklee College of Music. 

He met Bowie in 2014 through jazz composer Maria Schneider. McCaslin has been a longtime regular in her orchestra. (He was nominated for a Grammy in the improvised jazz solo category for his riffs on “Arbiters of Evolution” on Schneider’s Grammy-winning 2017 LP, The Thompson Fields.) Schneider knew that Bowie and McCaslin would hit it off as kindred musical spirits. She turned Bowie onto McCaslin’s 2012 Casting for Gravity, which Bowie “evidently dug” as McCaslin said. Then, just like that, Bowie and Schneider showed up to hear McCaslin play at New York’s West Village 55 Bar. Pretty soon McCaslin was backing Bowie with his band on Blackstar, recorded in New York’s Magic Shop in 2015, under sworn secrecy. 

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McCaslin calls his brief yet deep encounters with Bowie from 2014 until 2016 “unequivocally” his most inspiring times musically and personally. “As an artist and as a person, David was so deeply affirming.”

Some of Bowie’s words of wisdom toward the end of his life, taken from a letter written to his friend Gary Oldman, sum up his decades as a music innovator who broke rules and defied boundaries, perhaps imparting the power to other musicians to reframe his legacy in such a production as Blackstar Symphony. “Music has given me over 40 years of extraordinary experiences. … I can’t say that life’s pains or more tragic episodes have been diminished because of it, but it has allowed me so many moments of companionship that when I have been lonely and sublime means communications when I have wanted to touch people. It has been my doorway of perception and the house that I live in.'”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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