David Bowie remained a musical chameleon until the end of his life, as well known for his ever-shifting identities for his iconic songs. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has undergone his fair share of evolutions over the course of his own 30-year career, but he never imagined that his path would cross with Bowie’s — or that his innovative quartet would go down in rock history as Bowie’s final band.
Within the jazz world, McCaslin has long been a widely acclaimed voice as his music has gradually transformed from hard-charging acoustic jazz to a modern electro-acoustic sound that’s as influenced by Deadmau5, Skrillex and Aphex Twin as it is by Miles Davis or Herbie Hancock.
McCaslin first landed on Bowie’s radar in 2014 as a member of the Grammy-winning Maria Schneider Orchestra, when the lauded bandleader was recruited to collaborate on a new song, “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime).” The saxophonist was shocked when he received a follow-up call a few months later — he wasn’t even particularly well versed in Bowie’s catalogue.
“’Let’s Dance’ was part of the soundtrack to my youth,” McCaslin says. “I remember dancing to that record at the senior prom. I was generally familiar with some of his hits, but that’s about the extent of it.”
Regardless, Bowie must have felt some kinship with McCaslin and the way that his quartet — which also features keyboardist Jason Lindner, bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana — tirelessly seeks to incorporate new styles and ideas into their music. They entered the studio in early 2015 to record what would become “Blackstar,” a final masterwork that was released just two days prior to Bowie’s death.
“It’s an amazing record and it’s his vision,” McCaslin says. “He was at that stage of his career where he could just be doing greatest hits records, but he was pushing ahead. That fearlessness as an artist is profoundly inspiring to me.”
The experience made a lasting impact on McCaslin, as evidenced by his latest album, “Beyond Now,” music from which he’ll perform at Johnny Brenda’s on Tuesday. The album’s music echoes the rich soundscape of “Blackstar” and incorporates versions of two older songs, “A Small Plot of Land” and “Warszawa,” from Bowie’s collaborations with Brian Eno.
“I was thinking about him a lot in the recording studio,” McCaslin says. “I wanted to represent the way that he was constantly changing and pushing boundaries and going for it musically.”
Donny McCaslin’s Blackstar Quartet
March 7, 8 p.m., w/ Noveller
1201 Frankford Ave.