Every now and then, I start a blog post and think it is going to be a quick write; I’ve got the idea, it’s there, I know what I want to say, but thoughts do not translate into words as readily as I would like.
I started writing this blog post last Monday. My kitchen was full of the smells of Christmas baking – mixed sweet spices, plumped up fruits, and the kind of alcohol that you only drink at Christmas… if you are under 80. Amidst this heady aroma, I sat down to write about Donny McCaslin, the man who takes the sound of the saxophone as far away from its usual role as ‘the creepy uncle of the brass section’ as it could get.
When Donny McCaslin plays the saxophone, your heart explodes in your chest.
When Donny McCaslin plays saxophone, you get a tantilising taste of the gig that could have been, if only David Bowie hadn’t died.
Because the sound of Donny McCaslin’s saxophone is the sound of Blackstar, David Bowie’s final album.
It feels almost unfair to say as McCaslin’s sound and the music of his band is so much more than this, and can go on to be so much more than this, but the mixed emotions of pride and sorrow were evident when I was lucky enough to see Donny McCaslin and his band play at The Jazz Cafe a few weekends ago.
The show was amazing and may very well have spoilt me for all future gigs, given that we watched the show from a mezzanine floor, with dinner, and several bottles of rather nice wine. That’s the way to see a show. All credit there to The Jazz Cafe.
However, what I had not anticipated in all of the excitement of seeing the band and of dinner with friends, was the emotional power of seeing Donny McCaslin play. I had assumed that the band would probably play Lazarus, this being their ‘hit’ song. I had not anticipated in his sharing of the experience of working with David Bowie that Donny McCaslin would himself be overcome by emotion. Working with a hero, knowing him in his final months, your music inextricably linked with his in an album which is often referred to as a piece of ‘death art’.
It became impossible to and felt pointless to try to hold back the tears. Lazarus was performed as an instrumental, with no vocalist taking on Bowie’s lyrics but instead the saxophone carrying the melody line. It was a beautiful moment in tribute to one artist from another. The video for Lazarus famously shows David Bowie lying in what appears to be a hospital bed, the lyrics “Look up here, I’m in heaven,” printed in every tabloid upon his death, but the image that most moved me in the video was that of Bowie sat at a desk, frantically writing, scribbling, getting every last thought onto the page while he could.
That saxophone, that sound, that band led by Donny McCaslin, all played their part in enabling this ‘parting gift’ (as producer Tony Visconti called it) from David Bowie to his fans. I’ve always appreciated it but, in that quiet moment on The Jazz Cafe stage, I wanted to bake a cake for Donny McCaslin and give him a big hug. Carrying all of that emotion cannot be easy when it is magnified back at you every time you play by countless fans, still in some strange form of mourning for someone we never met, never worked with, never knew.
I’ll continue to follow Donny McCaslin’s music and career and know that his sound will haunt me most beautifully for the rest of my life.
*Special thanks to Nick and Pip for the spare tickets to this wonderful show and for agreeing with my policy on wine selection!