Donny McCaslin Group at Jazz Standard in 2012 // Image via New York Times
If you look at the credits for David Bowie’s final album, you’ll see the names of four musicians who took the stage together at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard last night. They are Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre, and Donny McCaslin.
The story goes something like this: David Bowie went to see the Donny McCaslin Group play 55 Bar in 2014 at the recommendation of one of his friends. He was so impressed by the music he heard, that he had his manager reach out to the players and invite them to the studio. The jam session went well enough that Bowie had the band join him in the sessions that would become ★.
When Bowie passed away earlier this year, it shrouded the release in infamy. Since then, the buzz around these players has grown into that of legend. These are the cats who inspire a dying David Bowie’s final performance on record, and they helped to craft the journey with him. Despite that heavy load, the quartet was seen in incredibly high spirits Wednesday night at the Jazz Standard, laughing and loving each second on stage with one another.
The evening kicked off with “Fast Future,” the electronica-tinged cut that kicks off Donny’s 2015 release of the same name. It didn’t take long for members of the audience to emerge fully in the music. For one, it was loud as hell in there, a rarity for a jazz room that also prides itself on a full restaurant menu (a delicious one, mind you). To boot, the quartet boasts a sound that can be appropriately summarized by the title of another track they played: “Stadium Jazz.” This isn’t your usual cocktail jazz, and it has more in common with fusion or even rock bands than it does anything from the bebop era. McCaslin joked at one point about his father requesting he do a standards record. The crowd burst into laughter at the ridiculousness of this band doing anything standard.
It’s loud, yes, but the music’s rambunctious nature doesn’t take anything away from the virtuosity of the composition. They aren’t playing loud so you can feel it, just so you can feel it a bit stronger. Each member, an accomplished musician to say the least, put their own personal accents on certain portions of the set. Lindner, who had a grand piano in addition to a synthesizer, was once called a “musical universe” by Chick Corea, a fairly accurate statement from one of the greats. Lefebvre has had stints in Tedeschi Trucks Band, and definitely plays a style more rockin’ than your traditional jazz bass player. Guiliana, of course, has been heralded as one of the great modern jazz drummers by virtually every publication out there. McCaslin ties them all together with composition that gets spacey, allows each artist to breathe, before bringing them back around for catchy hooks.
The energy was palpable as the quartet moved through their set, and towards the end they chose to cover a couple Bowie songs. “A Small Plot Of Land,” a collaborative track by Bowie and Brian Eno, which segued into “Warszawa,” a mellow, meditative joint off 1977’s Low. It was a gorgeous, and relatively unexpected, tribute to the Thin White Duke, a man who sort of took these four to the top on his way out. The set ended with “Stadium Jazz,” a thunderous number, and finally an encore of “Perpetual Motion.
Donny McCaslin Group plays Prospect Park on August 10th, and Tompkins Square Park on August 28th. We’re also looking forward to seeing them play the Newport Jazz Festival at the end of July.