David Bowie died Sunday, Jan. 10, at the age of 69. The following is a story on the production of the critically acclaimed album he released days before his death.
Tony Visconti was trying to get off the phone. "I have to go in few minutes," the producer said, speaking from New York. "We have 10 hours of rehearsal today. I'm playing bass. We're doing 'The Man Who Sold the World.' That album was never played live after we finished it. But we have played it live now, about 22 times in the U.K. and Japan, and now we're bringing our show to New York and the East Coast."
The "we" was drummer Woody Woodmansey's Holy Holy, an all-star gang that was preparing to play the High Line in New York on Friday night. Fronted by singer Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 and led by the drummer David Bowie worked with for a five-year span, including the Ziggy Stardust moment, the band is touring Bowie's 1970 album, along with a handful of his standards. But the artist is still writing his own history — the new "★" album ("Blackstar" when said out loud), co-produced with Visconti, comes out on the same day as the Holy Holy gig in New York. It is representative of Bowie's unique place that while he is releasing new music, he also approves of longtime collaborators performing music from his past. Bowie's present involves his transformation into a character that isn't even a word.
As I transcribed Visconti's conversation, a tweet from a user named @mstcambot appeared on my screen. He wrote: "Sometimes I check to see what David Bowie accomplished by my current age. Never do this." As Bowie turns 69, this advice applies to us all. What Bowie has accomplished in 50 years of recording dwarfs the work of so many that it is hard to contain Bowie in fewer than 10 separate thoughts or to assign him even a rough identity.
If we drag out the overused "chameleon" tag, it does nothing to address the volume of good songs Bowie's written and lays a false trail that distracts us from the fact that most pop stars change their styles every few years. The 2006 Kanye sounds and looks little like the 2016 Kanye. (Spread out laterally in any direction, taking Kid Rock, Aphex Twin, Drake, Dixie Chicks and Caribou with you as you go.)
After surgery in 2004 for a blocked artery, Bowie disappeared, or disappeared relative to Bowie's consistent visibility since the mid-'60s. His last live appearance was a performance of "Changes" at a charity benefit in 2006. The faithful worried about Bowie's health and intentions until 2013's "The Next Day," which he had begun working on in 2011. By contrast, "★" was recorded at light speed, in three sessions that took place in January, February and March 2015.
"Because of the secrecy around 'The Next Day,' it sounded like I was out of work for two years. I couldn't mention it," Visconti said. "★" took a fraction of the time to record, but both albums reflect a new way of composing for Bowie.
"When he was making records in the '70s and '80s, he was always on tour and living in hotel rooms, being a father — just too much pressure," Visconti said. "He'd come into the studio with maybe two or three great songs. I know Nile Rodgers would tell you same thing. Everyone who worked with him had the same experience. This used to frustrate me, as a producer. He comes in with no songs and says, 'Let's jam.' I'd say, 'Oh, no, how's this gonna turn out?'"
Pretty well, it turned out.
"'Blackstar' and 'Next Day' were stress-free, no problems," Visconti said. "He comes prepared now. This is an old dog with new tricks. Now, by not announcing he's making a record, he gives himself the time to be creative. Playing saxophone on these demos, bringing in radical guitar parts. He really is making music for himself these days. There's no fluff about David Bowie anymore. There never was, really."
Though both meticulously planned, "The Next Day" and "★" share almost no musical commonalities. "The Next Day" revisited some of the louder guitar work Bowie did in the '90s and spun it, sharpening the mix to foreground lyrics and bending noises outward. "★," though, is related to Bowie's catalog in method more than sound.
"David's always done hybrids," said Visconti. "When we did 'Yassassin' on 'Lodger,' we had a rock band playing their version of reggae. For this record, we had a jazz band but we didn't make a jazz record. We made a Bowie record."
That band is largely saxophonist Donny McCaslin's quartet, featuring drummer Marc Guiliana, keyboard player Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre. In spring 2014, Bowie was working with composer Maria Schneider on "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)," a new song being added to a three-disk omnium gatherum called "Nothing Has Changed," which was released in November 2014. Unbeknownst to McCaslin, a longtime member of Schneider's Orchestra, Schneider had given McCaslin's 2012 album, "Casting For Gravity," to Bowie, who saw the quartet at the 55 Club on June 1, 2014, and met McCaslin a week later at the rehearsals for the "Sue" recording. But before the recording, Bowie started emailing McCaslin ideas and later demos. By the end of summer, McCaslin was writing out the lead sheets for the "★" sessions that took place in early 2015.
The balance of composition and live playing here is spot-on. McCaslin acknowledged that although the band built out certain passages and added horns to certain parts, "the songs retained the shapes David presented in the demos."
Working with a predetermined sequence may have allowed Bowie the formal security to interact with the band directly and encourage them.
"We would work from 11 to about 4 at the Magic Shop in SoHo, every day," McCaslin said by phone from Brooklyn. "He was totally engaged. He came into the main room with us and sang while we played.
"We'd take a break, come back a few days later, and it would be clear that he and Tony had been listening really closely to the recordings. We'd do another version of a song sometimes, but not that many. A lot of what you hear on the album is a first or second take. We rehearsed it and then tried to capture it live. In that way, it's a traditional record, even if the songs aren't. This isn't constructed from pieces. It's live."
McCaslin recalled how Bowie discussed what he was reading and listening to, which included "the grandeur of Charlie Parker" as well as albums by Kendrick Lamar and D'Angelo.
What came out the other end sounds nothing like Bowie aping any of those people or much of his older work. Only one name popped into my head while listening to "★" — the artist Bowie has been referencing for his entire career as an inspiration: Scott Walker.
The album's title track stops just short of 10 minutes (to satisfy the iTunes rules for a posted single). It moves in a loose A/B/A form, bracketing the center with a line about "a solitary candle" and "a villa in Ormen." Within that, Bowie repeats, "in the center of it all, your eyes." In between all of that, one of Bowie's voices trades lines about an execution with another voice repeatedly claiming to be a "black star," not any other kind of star. McCaslin confirmed that early reports of the song being about Islamic State are inaccurate. Bowie's lyrics recall recent work by Walker, like "Bish Bosch," where sensible fragments pile up into a less sensible whole. The song is anchored by Guiliana's remarkably plastic drumming, punctuated by appearances of McCaslin's saxophone. You want to mention jazz while knowing that's not quite the right word. The suppleness of jazz is there but the album's solos are either brief or tucked under the vocals.
The album is a coherent, gutsy triumph where "The Next Day" was a comforting return to form (and to the world). Over the course of 42 minutes, Bowie meets a series of characters, including a woman who punches him "like a dude" with "mad hands," and a narrator anxiously trying to support an ailing wife. Except for a few stray keyboard sounds, nothing on "★" feels particularly rooted in time.
As a bandleader, Bowie pushes his players toward productive friction. On "'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore," as McCaslin moves into his highest register, slipping out of tonality, Guiliana a solid backbeat, unseating anything that feels like a default "jazz" setting.
"★" is, as Visconti described it, a Bowie album, the first one I've left on loop since "Scary Monsters." It is charged and scrupulously edited. There are five more songs from these sessions that have yet to be released. So look forward to next Christmas and hope for a deluxe edition.