Six years after Bowie’s death, there will be much ink still to be spilled on his legacy and contribution to music. I wasn’t sure how much of this would focus on the interest that he had in the variety of genres outside the music that he made his own.
His final album, ‘Black Star’ (2016) saw him working with Donny McCaslin, Mark Guiliana, Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre, and was heralded by some reviewers as Bowie’s ‘jazz’ album. But, even here, jazz was less a musical style than an attitude to making music.
By which I mean that the structure of the tunes and the tempo in which they were played, rarely feel like ‘jazz’ and maintain the 4-square beat of Bowie’s back catalogue (with many clear references to songs from his career). This is not to say that Bowie’s work with McCaslin et al. negated their jazz credentials – anymore than Bowie’s work with Eno or Fripp negated their ambient or experimental credentials. But it does raise the question of what ‘jazz’ meant to Bowie and his music.
Last year, the album ‘David Bowie in Jazz: a jazz tribute to David Bowie’ (Wagram Music) produced a set of jazz stylings of his tunes. So, one way to look for Bowie in jazz is to have a translation that shifts the tempo, structure and production values of his music to jazz.
Another way is to look at his recordings and ask how he took his own stylings from jazz.
A lovely piece in ‘Vanity Fair’, from 2003 has him looking through a massive collection of 2,500 vinyl LPs and playing the role of the kookie record collector. From this, he chooses records that range from The Velvet Underground, Little Richard and John Lee Hooker (who you’d expect to immediately associate with his music) to ‘folk’ music from Tucker Zimmerman and the Incredible String Band, to the rap and dub poetry of the Last Poets and Linton Kwesi Johnson, and funk of James Brown, to ‘classical’ music of Stravinsky and Strauss, and contemporary composed music of Reich and Branca, to the absurdity of Florence Foster Jenkins… Among this collection is Charles Mingus’ ‘Oh Yeah’ and Bowie tells a nice story of how this was a record he bought in a record store in Bromley as a very young teenager.
He mentions, in particular, the title ‘Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am’ (words which I don’t need to remind you that he used in one of his best loved songs). Many of the records that he picks out of his collection are noted for their sleeve designs rather than the music they contain.
But jazz was a genre with a deep emotional basis for Bowie. He was introduced to records by Coltrane and Dolphy by his half-brother Terry Burns and took up the saxophone very early in his life. A commemoration (or celebration) of the influence of Terry can be heard in Bowie’s saxophone squawking on ‘Jump They Say’ (1983), and perhaps, more tenderly, in his playing on ‘Subterraneans’ (1977).
But Bowie’s saxophone playing was always something he did in addition to singing, so it is not surprising that he heard, at New York’s Bar 55, Donny McCaslin as a player who not only had wonderful versatility in his handling of the saxophone but also felt equally at home across the limited time signatures of rock and rock, and the many and varied beats of jazz.
Working with McCaslin et al. on ‘Blackstar’ gave Bowie scope to work out a range of different ways of seeing music. The album developed from Bowie’s musical Lazarus, which combines the character he played in the film The Man Who Fell to Earth with Bowie’s delight in mixing all manner of musical styles into his sound.
As Tony Visconti said, Bowie’s goal on this album was to “avoid rock & roll”2 and, one can see, to also provide an autobiography of his life in music.
Looking back over his career, you find a host of pointers to that ragbag of musical styles that fall under the label of jazz. These include his debt to the song writing of Anthony Newley, Jacques Brel and Nina Simone (as well as the host of showtunes that he would throw into his live shows).
The former leant him (early in his career) a particular way of singing as a sort of cockney wideboy, but also taught him how to structure songs to evoke pathos (although for me, Bowie, managed to keep the pathos to a much more palatable level than Newley’s maudlin style).
The latter two taught him songs (and, for me, Bowie’s version of ‘Wild in the Wind’ (1981) has greater poignancy than Simone’s). He learned from these singers, ways of creating songs in tempos other than 4/4. So, songs like his cover of Brel’s ‘Amsterdam’ (1973)or his own songs ‘Five Years’ (1972) or ‘Drive in Saturday’ (1973) hover around 3/4 time (depending on which concert tour he played them) and ‘Looking for Satellites’ (from ‘Earthling’, 1997) has a time signature that could be around 6/4 (although the structure and the mix of the song feels closer to folk-rock than jazz).
Across the rest of his catalogue, it can be tricky to find tunes that are outside 4/4. There was quite a debate across social media when ‘Black Star’ came out as to whether Bowie ‘did’ jazz – and the consensus seemed to be that hardly any of the songs he recorded ventured beyond the 4-square time signature of rock.
Of course, trying to pin jazz simply to a time signature would be a hiding to nothing and rule out, say much of the wonderful work of late Miles. We could look to ways in which he took jazz-inspired ideas, like the Philadelphia soul music he used in ‘Young Americans’ (1975) or the bass-heavy riff of ‘Let’s Dance’ (1983). But a more obvious place to start to explore Bowie’s relationship with jazz is to consider who played with him.
His 1993 album ‘Black Tie, White Noise’ album featured Lester Bowie (not just on the track ‘Looking for Lester’ – an instrumental with a groove that would not have been out of place on a Miles album) but on half a dozen tracks. On this album, Bowie also picks up the saxophone that he had not featured on many of his previous recordings (although it often featured in photographs of him).
While the over-mixed drums can make this album feel a bit dated, the tunes represent a break in style from his previous work (the album was recorded after his “grunge” band Tin Machine disbanded). Equally interestingly, this album featured Mike Garson, on piano, and brought him back into the band after he had left the Spiders from Mars.
It was Garson who created the avant-jazz piano feel for the song ‘Aladdin Sane’, and who lends some of the more interesting textures to Black Tie, White Noise. Of course, this is not a ‘jazz’ album – the closing track, ‘The Wedding’, celebrates his marriage to Iman and features a host of sounds which feels Middle Eastern (not least the treatment of Bowie’s own saxophone playing) – and the working title of the LP was The Wedding Album, so this piece was always going to have a significant place on the record.
An interesting comment that he made about the record was that ‘So much of this album comes from a more emotional plane that I’m wont to generally show about myself. It’s a very emotionally charged album.’3
Across his career, Bowie has recorded with luminaries from the jazz world. For example, ‘This is not America’ (1985) was performed with the Pat Metheny Group and ‘Toy (your turn to drive)’ – remixed for this year’s release ‘Toy Box’ – was recorded with Cuong Vu.
On both tracks, the over-arching rhythm has the basic beat that one might associate with rock, but the musicians (and Bowie himself) continually find the gaps and shadows in this time-signature that create tension to the music. Given his mention of Branca and Reich in his ‘favourite’ records, the very idea that music could be repetitive without repeating itself is not a bad way of concluding how he took the spirit of jazz into his life and music.