by SCOTT DENNIS PARKER
Much has been made of the overt jazz vibe on David Bowie’s final album, BLACKSTAR. Some have all but called it a jazz record. It is, but, as with all of Bowie’s records, it’s not that simple. Nothing with Bowie ever was.
True, the jazz influences are much more overt than on other albums, but this is David Bowie. If he’s a chameleon of fashion and style, then he’s always been an amalgamation of musical styles. BLACKSTAR is merely the last example of a musical journey Bowie traversed since the beginning, or at least since his popularity allowed him the freedom to follow his own curious nature.
What made BLACKSTAR unique in the months leading up to its release was the musicians Bowie and producer Tony Visconti recruited. Long-time stalwarts like Mike Garson (piano), Gail Ann Dorsey (bass), or even Carlos Alomar (guitar) were not called. Bowie wanted to try something different. He wanted to bring a decidedly jazz quality to this new collection of songs. Much like Sting did back in 1985, Bowie wanted jazz musicians who could not only play rock music but also improvisers who would bring a jazz sensibility to the songs.
The first clue to what Bowie wanted was in the 2014 song, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” a new song added to a compilation that covered Bowie’s entire career to that point. For that song, Bowie worked with Maria Schneider, composer and leader of her own big band. “Sue” was a nearly ten-minute peek into another universe, one in which Bowie was a crooner for a big band and not a rock and roll singer. But make no mistake: Bowie is a rock star. He just plays in jazz’s playground.
The opening song on the new album is the title track. Its initial moments frankly conjured sound images from the electronica of LOW. A few minutes later, Donny McCaslin’s tenor saxophone seeps into the mix. Strings embellish a grand sweep of music, while McCaslin’s honking sax brings to mind John Coltrane. A strange thing happens halfway through the minor-key song: “Blackstar” changes completely. The opening lyrics–“Something happened on the day he died”–and major chord music signal a serious transition. This part pretty much sounds like an outtake from THE NEXT DAY, Bowie’s 2013 comeback album. Again, a few minutes later, the song shifts back to the original melody, giving “Blackstar” somewhat of a bookended quality.
“Lazarus” gets lots of attention both for the prescient lyrics and McCaslin’s moody tenor saxophone. Bowie knew he was dying and you can hear it, feel it at the start of the song. But amid the gloom of the song–and an artist staring mortality in the face–Bowie all but shouts back. “I’m not dead yet.” The swell of the music, the glorious crescendo of the music, with McCaslin’s sax souring over top, the song ends up becoming a fist-pumping rebuke of death.
For as much press BLACKSTAR has received for being a jazz album, “Girl Loves Me” is a nice reminder that Bowie is one of the greatest rock musicians. Very little jazz is evident in this song. Instead, Bowie and Visconti deliver a song that would be quite at home on THE NEXT DAY. In tone and vibe, “Girl Loves Me” draws from a wide variety of sources including OUTSIDE, THE BUDDHA OF SUBURBIA, and EARTHLING.
“Dollar Days,” the penultimate song on BLACKSTAR, immediately returns to the jazz realm. McCaslin’s muted tenor sax bubbles up in a moody blend of music that would be right at home in a black and white movie, late in the story when the hero is all alone. When Bowie starts singing, the song turns on a dime. Effervescent guitars jangle along in an utterly beautiful song. Bright, cheerful, with an underpinning of elder melancholy. His words again pierce the listener’s heart. Again, McCaslin’s tenor solo is a soaring counterpoint to Bowie’s own vocal delivery. If any of the first five tunes felt unfamiliar, “Dollar Days” is familiar territory, reminiscent of modern day gems like “Everyone Says Hi,” “Seven,” or “Days.” The song fades into an ethereal mix that feels like the musical equivalent of a soul rising to heaven.
But Bowie has one last musical message to us. In fact, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” starts before “Dollar Days” is even over. Bowie’s voice is very “close” in the mix, especially in headphones. It gives the listener the distinct impression that he’s singing directly to each one of us. Which, of course, he is. The harmonica flourishes harken back to 1987’s “Never Let Me Down” while McCaslin’s sax does its own thing, almost as if the song belongs to it and Bowie is merely the guest singer. Death lances through the last words Bowie sang. They sting, but there’s joyous defiance in his voice and delivery. Yes, death will take me, Bowie seems to say, but I still possess the gifts God gave me and I’m going out on the top of my game. Fittingly, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” ends with a guitar flourish that at once would gracefully end a concert but also directly echo the guitar work on “Look Back in Anger” and “Heroes.” Guitar and strings and drums end triumphantly what is effectively David Bowie’s last will and testament.
For two days in January 2016, the world marveled at this stunning album from one of the all-time greats. And then Bowie died, and the album took on additional quality and meaning. Bowie’s death will always overshadow any listening of this album. That fact is inescapable and, indeed, is part of the music’s DNA. But you can listen to this work of musical art on its own and marvel at the sheer genius that was David Bowie.
The former Ziggy Stardust, the former Thin White Duke, the former Aladdin Sane made some magnificent albums throughout his 40+ year career. Some critics might’ve considered his best days behind him when, in 2004, health concerns cancelled the Reality Tour and Bowie went into a ten-year seclusion. BLACKSTAR was proof that conceit was wrong. It is a stellar album that can honestly stand alongside ZIGGY STARDUST, HUNKY DORY, LOW, “HEROES,” or HEATHEN.
Scott Dennis Parker lives and works in his native Houston, Texas. He is the Saturday columnist at DoSomeDamage.com. He is the founder of Quadrant Fiction Studio, an independent publisher that specializes in stories that will amaze, excite, and, most importantly, entertain you.