‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

February 16, 2017

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‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Bowie home demo, single).
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Blackstar remake).

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A man of property and standing, believing his new wife virtuous, is deceived. She grows sick, though the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine—she just ate some bad melons. Yet the truth’s soon inescapable: she’s pregnant, by another man. Worse, by her brother. I know you have a son, her husband says. O folly! I’m such a fool: you went with that clown.

He’s persuaded to forgive her, but plans revenge. In a season of crime, none need atone. Instead, the brother stabs her to death, skewers his sister’s heart on his dagger, murders her husband, then at last is dispatched by thugs. A cardinal gets the closing lines:

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The last words of John Ford’s 1633 play are its title, and they also title David Bowie’s 2014 single, in which Bowie potted Ford’s revenge tragedy into a film noir setting. Incestuous, doomed Annabella becomes Sue in the weeds.

Wait, no, Bowie’s single is called “Sue.” Turn the disc over. There, the B-side has Ford’s title.

But if “Sue” is “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” under an assumed name, then what’s this song?

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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It’s Sunday in the late Seventies. In downtown Santa Cruz, the Pacific Garden Mall, “a playland of urban design,” winds along Pacific Street. A few blocks east is the San Lorenzo River; a half hour’s walk brings you the ocean. A jazz band plays in front of the Cooper House, a buff-brick old grandeur that was born a courthouse and now holds shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s the maypole around which downtown dances, as a Santa Cruz journalist wrote.

The band’s called Warmth, fitting for an outfit that carries shoppers and idlers through the Californian afternoons. The bandleader hops from Wurlitzer to piano to marimba; the tie-dye-clad saxophonist uses his solos to tear off into space, with great skronks, broils, and bleats. They play Cal Tjader, some Cannonball Adderley. As the afternoon ebbs, the tempo picks up. “Feel Like Making Love” and “Mustang Sally,” organ notes bouncing off the Cooper House walls. Couples tipsy from white wine over lunch get up to dance. Just offstage, sitting in a chair, is a boy of 10 or 12, watching his father’s band.

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Donny McCaslin, born in 1966, is the work of postwar American systems: a well-funded public school with a top-notch jazz band; a community college with professional jazz instructors; a municipal infrastructure that supported concerts by Warmth, and a community center to host concerts and seminars. “It was a place and time where all of these elements were together in place and I could just plug myself into them,” McCaslin said recently. Today, many are gone. His high school jazz program “is nowhere near what it was…budget cuts have decimated [it],” though the music program of Cabrillo Community College, where he took courses as a teenager, is somewhat intact. The Cooper House and the original Pacific Garden Mall are not, as they were demolished after a 1989 earthquake.

When McCaslin was 12, he made an “impulsive decision to switch out of a class in junior high into beginner’s orchestra,” mainly because a friend was in the latter. Asked what he wanted to play, McCaslin chose tenor saxophone, in part because he was in awe of Warmth’s bohemian saxophonist, Wesley Braxton (“I remember looking into the bell of his saxophone and there was like a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in it”).

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Throughout his teenage years, McCaslin was steeped in jazz. He was lucky in his teachers: his professional musician father, and his band director, whose friendship with a Duke Ellington trumpeter meant that a student band had a book of Ellington charts. In location, too. Santa Cruz was a stop for jazz musicians heading from LA to San Francisco, so on any given Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he could see the likes of Elvin Jones.

He was a pro by college (Berklee, class of ’88), playing in Gary Burton’s band before graduating. Moving to New York, McCaslin did stints with the Gil Evans Project, Steps Ahead, Danilo Perez, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He found that he thrived in groups. “It would be harder for me to live in a place where I was isolated and alone, and it was up to me in terms of my musical development.”

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A John Coltrane fanatic at Berklee, McCaslin’s core influences would shift to Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. He loved that Rollins once called himself a “blue-collar improviser,” and “the compositional nature of [Shorter’s] improvising.” With Perez, he developed his rhythms (“I grew up when jazz education for sax players was focused on…chord scales and chromatic substitutions, and there wasn’t much emphasis on time and rhythmic variation“). From Schneider, he learned how to deploy soloists, to loosen structure—his solo on her “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is one of his first definitive moments on record.

McCaslin stands at 6′ 3″, a great presence on stage, at times bowing to the ground as if gravity’s bent on claiming his saxophone, while his lungs seem as large as mainsails. In 2007 Nate Chinen wrote of McCaslin “unfurling intricate lines as if they were streamers, in great gusts of exhalation.” A melodically dedicated improviser, he works in volume and tone, with a taste for long crescendos, slowly-accumulating builds that splinter into rapid-fire sprays of notes.

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His albums mark his progress. Soar (2006) is McCaslin working through immersions in Latin music, under the sway of tango vocalist Roberto Goyeneche (“the way he sings, half of the time he’s talking, and it’s really over the bar line, it’s got this real vibe“). The aptly-named Declaration (2009) was one grand solo after another, like a man wheeling Cadillac models off a factory floor, from the title track through “M” and “Rock Me.”

At the turn of the decade, McCaslin started assembling his current quartet. Perpetual Motion (2010), his first album with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, was also the start of electronica as a compositional influence, at the urging of his producer/mentor David Binney (by 2014, McCaslin was tackling Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats“). It was also McCaslin looking back to afternoons at the Pacific Garden Mall, cutting jazz fusion pieces like “LZCM” (i.e., “Led Zeppelin Christian McBride”), “Impossible Machine” and “Memphis Redux” (inspired by “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a Warmth favorite).

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By 2012, when Jason Lindner had joined on keyboards, the McCaslin Quartet settled into its current form. With Guiliana, McCaslin had a drummer who could groove but also could replicate the rigor of electronic percussion, from the uncanny precision of his beats to how he varied the pitch of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head. In Lefebvre, he had a road-seasoned, genial monster of a player who got thunderclaps from his pedals. And Lindner could glide from providing washes of synthesizer to the sudden clarity of a piano passage to a Wurlitzer groove that, again, called back to McCaslin’s father vamping on “Mustang Sally” for mall dancers.

Casting For Gravity was a first statement of purpose. “Says Who” has McCaslin alternating types of solos: melodically expansive ones based off a lopsided theme, minimalist ones in which he keeps to a handful of notes while his rhythm section spins around him like bumper cars. Its lead-off track got its title from Guiliana’s comment that one live performance had been so hot that it felt like “stadium jazz.”

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Instead of Giants Stadium, the McCaslin Quartet had 55 Bar, a former speakeasy that’s been on Christopher Street in New York since the Red Scare. Cecil Taylor would hang out by the ice machine, talking about Coltrane and Martha Graham; Norah Jones was there in her first years, Jaco Pastorius in his last. By the early 2010s, it had become “a clubhouse of sorts for players in McCaslin’s circle.”

On 1 June 2014, the Quartet was booked at the 55. On his web page, Lefebvre noted it as a “gig before we record Donny’s new record.” It wasn’t a flawless performance, as Lefebvre recalled struggling with his pedals at times (“the outlets there are janky“). During a break, a waitress came by to say there was a guy at one table “who looks like an old David Bowie.”

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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McCaslin, though not his band, knew to expect Bowie in the room. The latter was composing “Sue” with Schneider at the time, and she’d recommended he check out the McCaslin Quartet for a few songs on his next album (soon enough, McCaslin and Guiliana would be in rehearsals for the “Sue” recording). Bowie and McCaslin didn’t meet that night, but a day or so later, Bowie sent him an email.

And the first song Bowie sent McCaslin, not long after they started emailing, was a demo he’d recorded at his apartment, a song inspired by what he’d heard at 55 Bar that night.”I sat there in stunned silence for a while,” McCaslin said, recalling first hearing it. Although Bowie was in the studio in summer 2014 to record full demos with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford and Jack Spann, the B-side of “Sue,” issued that November, was Bowie alone: the same home demo he’d sent McCaslin, full of keyboard presets and crackling with cheap distortion.”The B-side was a demo. It was just kickass,” Visconti said. “His production skills have gone up 5,000%.”

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He’d been recording home demos since his teens. His former manager, Kenneth Pitt, recalled one bedroom studio set-up for which Bowie piled different-sized stacks of books to serve as tom and kick drums. There were a slew of tapes from those years, most of which were done for his publisher (to no surprise, the majority of bootlegged “lost” Bowie compositions hail from this period—the tapes circulated among London song-pluggers).

Bowie’s demos are his shadow songbook. What do they sound like? Are they fresher, wilder, more strange than their finished takes? You could project anything onto them, make them the “real” versions of disappointing album cuts. The early “Scary Monsters” that Bowie made for Iggy Pop in LA, ca. 1975. Whatever the first version of “Bring Me the Disco King” was. His producers were struck by the tapes, from Nile Rodgers (“I said ‘wow, that’s the way ‘Cat People’ goes?'” Rodgers recalled of hearing the original demo) to Hugh Padgham, who described the legendary “soul” demos for Tonight as being livelier and better than some released tracks.

Sometimes he’d dispense with the crutch of pre-recording songs—his late Seventies and mid-Nineties come to mind, when worked without a net in the studio. But by his last years, he’d essentially become a home-studio indie musician—the McCaslin Quartet recalled each demo being a miniature performance, full of surprising sounds, with bass and drumlines intricate enough that the players often based their performances on them. “The demos he sent us were nuts: so off and quirky and awesome,” Lefebvre said.

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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Having gone through McCaslin’s catalogue in preparation for working with him (Lefebvre: “usually it’s the other way around—you research the guy who hired you“), Bowie focused on two pieces from Casting For Gravity. One was McCaslin’s take on Boards of Canada‘s “Alpha and Omega,” in which a multi-tracked McCaslin played a looped, phased melodic theme over variations driven by drum and bass. The other was “Praia Grande,” which built to a maximalist McCaslin solo full of great bass note waggles, riding a wave of drums (lots of splash and tom fills), Lindner’s synth and Binney’s vocals.

In the demo of “‘Tis a Pity,” the song’s development is driven by Bowie’s saxophone and piano lines, which pivot off a relatively-unchanging rhythmic base. “Compositionally the bass is more arhythmic and less of a harmonic function,” Lindner said. “It remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple of notes shifting to complement the progression.” (“That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal,” Lefebvre added.)

The same was true for the drum pattern. “The groove on the demo was a driving one-bar loop,” Guiliana said. “The challenge was to play this repetitive part but stay in the moment and keep pushing the intensity.” In overdubs, Guiliana played a Roland SPD-SX “full of 808 sounds,” almost all of which were kept in the final mix (e.g. the burst against Bowie’s “’tis my fate” at 3:33).

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Another starting point was likely Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct,” which like “‘Tis a Pity,” begins with a sonic barrage (taken from THX-1138) and whose timbre is similar. It’s possible Bowie was working out how to create a Steve Reich-esque sense of phasing, acceleration and heightening, and as he had the Nineties on his mind (see future entries), “Mr. Self Destruct” soon emerged as a rock-beat-driven template he could use. (A commenter in 2015 suggested yet another possible ancestor: the soundtrack of the 2005 film Lemming, which also has lots of acceleration and odd timings).

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There’s a fundamental instability in “‘Tis a Pity,” which spends much of its span shading between F major and F minor, from its intro and solo sections (Fm-Bb-F) to the coda, where Bowie’s waves of backing vocals shift from singing A-flat to A major notes, in turn coloring the underlying F chord from major to minor and back again.

But the greatest destabilizer is Bowie’s accelerandorallentando saxophone, moving in and out of phase with a plinking keyboard line. The feeling is of a song laboring to assemble itself, with the saxophone sounding like a locomotive slowly taking on steam until, when Bowie starts singing, the saxophone then slows in tempo, as if out of breath, only to build up again. This struggle continues throughout the song—Bowie’s saxophone disregards whatever role was planned for it to move in its own way, often keeping on the same note as if out of spite, taking an occasional cue from the vocal but more a corrosive agent that winds up ruling the track.

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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Indulge yet another theory. David Bowie sits down to write a song based on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore, turns the Annabella character into “Sue,” winds up with a song called “Sue.” But he still likes Ford’s title (even if he keeps putting an “a” before Pity) and wants to use it. Having transferred Ford’s “plot” into “Sue,” he has an empty stage where once there was a play. A scratch-space to populate.

You could say Ford’s lustful and murderous players are still here, hidden behind screens and made absurd. But the second line, ‘hold your mad hands!’ I cried,” in quotations on the lyric sheet, is an apparent reference to Robert Southey’s Sonnet I (1797), which begins a sequence of poems condemning the slave trade, and whose opening lines are:

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This led Nicholas Pegg, in his newest revision, to go off on an interpretative spree that includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I won’t spoil it—you should get the book). “‘Tis a Pity” is a hub around which the grandest, most bizarre interpretations can wheel. Like the now-demolished Cooper House in Santa Cruz, it’s a maypole.

There’s also the inevitable biographical reading. Bowie, apparently having suffered multiple heart attacks in the 2000s, faced worse medical news. Hence the references to disease and theft, to the idea that life is no longer skirmishes but has become a final, consuming battle that the singer knows he’ll lose in time.

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And then, Bowie’s only public statement on the song: “If Vorticists wrote Rock Music, it might have sounded like this.” The Vorticists, Britain’s answer group to the Futurists, had been on his mind for a while—they’re creeping around The Next Day and the Vorticist Blast is listed in his Top 100 Books.

Sitting in the crowded 55 Bar that night in New York, watching a jazz band blast away on stage, his brain being its usual warehouse, did Bowie flash on a parallel? The Cave of the Golden Calf, the notorious Vorticist cabaret of the early 1910s, combination gay bar and avant-garde hobnobbing gallery. A low-ceilinged club in the basement of a cloth manufacturer, its walls adorned with Ballet Russe murals and Wyndham Lewis’ stencils.

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Calling up wild mad nights in London in the early 1910s, comparing them with a crowd of polite young jazz enthusiasts gathered that night in New York in the last years of the Obama Administration. The Vorticists had demanded the future, wanted a world of dynamism, machines, color and noise, and they got the war instead, the war that began the summer that the Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt. The war that killed several Vorticists and sent Wyndham Lewis to the Western Front, on patrol for the Royal Artillery, spying on German positions from forward observation posts, calling in artillery strikes.

We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.

The Cave of the Golden Calf was located at 9 Heddon Street, London. Its former building is in the background of the cover photo of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with Bowie posed right up the street.

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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Making a “proper” version of “‘Tis a Pity” for Blackstar was a top order of business—it was one of the first tracks taped for the album, on 5 January 2015. “When we got together that first week, David said he wanted to re-record [it],” McCaslin said. “We were playing hard and going for it. That just happened in like ten minutes. That might’ve been the first take.”

The Blackstar “Pity” opens with two sharp intakes of breath, like a man readying himself to walk up another flight of stairs. Or, to be fair, like someone snorting coke.

The demo vocal is quieter, its laments humbler; it’s a man making strange asides in a corner of the room, trying to find an angle into the song, which is rolling along without any need of him. The Blackstar singer is more gregarious: he has an audience. Man, she punched me like a dude, he begins in a conspiratorial tone, trying to cadge a drink from a stranger in a bar. He rubs his cheek in wincing recollection. My curse, I suppose, in a tootling phrase; his four-note closing emphases—that-was-pa-trol—broken with a piping lift up an octave to a high F on “waaaaar.”

He keeps on, his muddled tale growing murkier (maybe he got that drink), cracking the hard “ks” of “kept my cock” like walnuts, oddly dramatizing her “rattling speed” by slowing his notes down, crowning “whore” by making it his new octave-jump. Each time he repeats the title phrase, he grows more absurd until, in the last go-round, his voice seems to have crawled into his pocket: teeshapeetysheeewarseurhoooor.

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The other great change lies in how the saxophone’s deployed. On the demo, it’s always there in the verses, essentially becoming the lead vocal, the chief color in a whirlwind of noise. On Blackstar, with McCaslin now taking the part and breaking it in two (he did sax overdubs months after the initial take), its use is more precise and dramatic. In the first verse, McCaslin only enters with a slow dancing phrase after “my curse”; in the third, he arrives with some Albert Ayler-esque trumpeting phrases. His multiple sax tracks take on much of the work of the piano on the demo, making an upspeed-downshift duet of stereo-scoped saxophones.

As McCaslin spirals outward into the coda, tearing into notes and discarding them, David Bowie breaks character. A whoo! as if he’s startled by something, then two shouts—goddamn, this is happening—and a last yell like a man coming off a roller-coaster loop. Standing in the studio, facing this miraculous band he’d found seemingly from out of nowhere, stepping back to see what’s in front of him.

It’s the Vorticists’ “separating, ungregarious British grin.” It’s Jacobean incest-murder noir, or God’s judgment on slave traders or just whatever strange jokes floated through his head on the day he sat in his apartment and started taping his demo. A ridiculous bloody history of this broken world is within “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore,” a latter-life masterpiece, with no top and no bottom.

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Recorded: (demo, B-side) ca. June 2014, Bowie’s home studio, Lafayette St., NYC; (album) (backing tracks) 5 January 2015, Magic Shop; (McCaslin overdubs) ca. March-April 2015, Human Worldwide; (vocals) 20, 22 April 2015, Human Worldwide. Released: (demo) 17 November 2014, B-side of “Sue”; (album) 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources: Quotes on Pacific Garden Mall from the Santa Cruz Sentinel: Wallace Bain, 3 Oct 2009 (“urban design”) & Jason Hoppin, 14 Oct 2014 (“maypole”). McCaslin bio: primarily from David Adler, Jazztimes, 13 June 2011, and DM’s interview with Neon Jazz, 12 February 2016. Also Nate Chinen, NYT, 14 June 2007; Jason Crane, All About Jazz, 8 September 2008. Other quotes from Jazztimes (Lindner), Modern Drummer (Guiliana), No Treble, Pedals & Effects (Lefebvre), Mojo (Visconti, McCaslin), Uncut (McCaslin), New Yorker Radio Hour (McCaslin). Insights on composition: Alex Reed; “Crayon to Crayon.” Momus, in 2014, brought up the Cave of the Golden Calf; his album The Ultraconformist claims to have been recorded on wax cylinders at the club in 1910.

Photos/art: Ian McDuffie, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, 2015; panel from Hawkeye No. 9, 2013 (Matt Fraction/David Aja; suggestion of Fraction); Warmth at the Cooper House, ca. 1970s; Santa Cruz Sentinel, 31 March 1989; Nadja van Massow, “Donny McCaslin, Jazz Baltica,” 30 June 2007; McCaslin & band at 55 Bar, 2015; Lydia Wilson as Annabella, ‘Tis Pity.., Barbican, 2012; Wyndham Lewis, Cave of Golden Calf brochure, 1912; mash-up of Cave of Golden Calf, 1912, & 55 Bar, 2015. All text breaks from Blast No. 1 (1914), the 1915 D.C. Heath & Co. edition of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or the NYT, 9 August 1914.

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Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)

December 1, 2016

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Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (single edit, video).
Sue (Or In a Season of Crime) (Blackstar remake).

1. Allegro con brio

Imagine: David Bowie wondering whether he’d been gone too long, fearing that releasing a new album after ten years of silence would be considered an indulgence, a folly, politely ignored, condescended to. Issuing a surprise single on his birthday in January 2013, he hedges a bet. Discarding the promotional hype cycle lets him startle his fans, but also avoids raising their expectations. “Where Are We Now?” is simply there; no time to wonder what it would sound like.

Then comes The Next Day, the longest production of his life, over two years of studio work; it’s an album that, at times, he seems to consider scrapping. A sense of hard struggle permeates it, in its overlong sequence, its combative, narrow-scoped vocals, the pieces of old songs that keep surfacing. Tony Visconti, in early 2016, said that TNDstarted out trying to do something new but something old kept creeping in.”

TND does the job, though: it sells, gets (mostly) rapturous reviews, makes Bowie seem current again. Mark the growing confidence in his videos, from hermetic curator of “Where Are We Now?” to the piss-and-vinegar performers of “The Next Day” and “Valentine’s Day.” He’s through the rebirth. He can go anywhere he’d like. As he’ll write in a new song: I’m sittin’ in the chestnut tree/ Who the fuck’s gonna mess with me?

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Jazz may have set me off on this idea that ‘planned accidents’ are truly wonderful experiences in music…it’s inspired me just by giving me an understanding that it’s okay to drift between the spaces created by the melody. The melody is a schematic, an outline of what you can do…the most important thing for me was learning that the spaces between the notes are where the action really is.

Bowie, 1995.

Jazz was his foundation music: the Georgie Fame-inspired “Take My Tip“; the Charles Mingus quote in “Suffragette City”; Let’s Dance, which has a big-band heart on some tracks; the wintry fusion of “This Is Not America” with the Pat Metheny Group; the long thread running through his Nineties, from “South Horizon” to “A Small Plot of Land” (whose “poor dunce” melody is heard in “Sue”) to “Looking for Lester,” a full-on D.-Lester Bowie trumpet/saxophone duel.

The problem was that Bowie, as he’d happily admit, lacked technique. His saxophone playing couldn’t pass muster in any environment but those he created in the studio. As a vocalist, he was so distinctive in tone and phrasing that integrating him into a jazz ensemble would be difficult. He’d pulled it off in spots (his and Angelo Badalamenti’s “A Foggy Day” comes to mind) but never on a large canvas.

Now he wanted to go the whole hog: work with a jazz band, not rock ‘n’ rollers acting the part. His ideal was a bandleader like Stan Kenton and Gil Evans, architects of postwar reveries (Evans had scored Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners). “David and I had a long fascination for [them],” Visconti said. “We always held the jazz gods on a pedestal above us.”

The plan was long in the works, as Bowie’s plans tended to be. During his early 2000s tours, he’d talk about wanting to work with jazz musicians with his pianist Mike Garson (who had a jazz background). It was Garson who first told Bowie to look up the bandleader/composer Maria Schneider. A decade or so later, Bowie did.

2. Andante con moto

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Maria Schneider was born in Windom, in southwest Minnesota, in 1960. It’s a farm town on the Des Moines River, a half-hour’s drive from the Iowa border. She’s returned there in compositions like “Sky Blue,” “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” and “The Thompson Fields”: watercoloring empty spaces; drawing on memories of flying in her father’s propeller plane to North Dakota and Canada, over fields of flax and corn. At home, “we had all these big picture windows and you’d look out the window and you’d see nothin’,” she said in 2006. “When your entertainment isn’t provided for you, your life is full of fantasy.

Unlike her future saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who’d been cooked in jazz since childhood, she barely knew the music until her college years. You can imagine Bowie happy to find a gifted, renowned jazz composer who had essentially stumbled into her field. A composition major at the University of Minnesota, she began reading about jazz scoring and gorging on records. The university had no jazz composition department but there was a campus big band. She began working with them and soon wrote for them.

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After graduating, she worked with Gil Evans, who showed how to blend instruments in an ensemble, making fresh cocktails with tones (so Schneider may score a line for a combination of mute trombone/baritone saxophone, making them sound like an English horn). How to “dress a soloist,” as she described it, using as an example how Evans arranged “Concierto de Aranjuez” on Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain: “there’s all this fluttering—this movement…all these things going on—and when Miles enters, everything stops.” And how to push musicians to their limits, to create “struggling points” in compositions. Evans, reviewing something she’d rescored for him, had her put “the low instruments at the top of their range, so they’re uncomfortable.

She also studied with Bob Brookmeyer, who argued that structure shouldn’t be rigid. Don’t do a chord change because “it’s time” for one. A solo shouldn’t come after x many bars of a theme because that’s when a solo always comes. A solo, he said, should only come when there are no other alternatives.

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By the early Nineties, she’d put together a big band. The life of an American jazz musician, even one with club residencies and write-ups in the New York Times, is a precarious one. During the years the Maria Schneider Orchestra played the West Village club Visiones on Mondays, she would cab down with the scores and music stands, and pay each musician $25 a night (she took $15). “Every week was logistical hell,” she said. “It’s different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.” Only a rent-controlled apartment (something many of today’s young NYC musicians lack) allowed her to keep afloat, financially.

She began recording in 1994, for the German label Enja. It soon proved untenable: she had to come up with a third of the recording costs for each album, which she never recouped. In the early 2000s, she began self-publishing and fan-funding through ArtistShare. She records her albums and sells them via her website (they can’t be streamed or downloaded elsewhere). It’s the life of an independent artist today—tending to one’s audience, trying to get fresh funding, hyping the latest release, pushing the back catalog, touring as much as you can.

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Despite the grind of work life, her music improved. Her rhythms became subtler, her melodies broadened; her sense of texture, already fine, became masterful. As Gary Giddins wrote, “her greatest strength is in the rich vertical dressing of harmonies that swell in discerning, spacious clouds of sound…the whole orchestra breathing as one.”A breakthrough was Allegresse (2000), which opens with “Hang Gliding,” with its mixed meters and fluid structure—no intro/chorus/solo sections but a series of slowly interlapping lines, like a procession moving along a thoroughfare.

There’s “Dissolution,” which moves from flute wanderlude to drum-and-guitar scrum to walk out in serenity (one section has (presumably accidental) melodic affinities to the end of “Bewlay Brothers”).”Bulería, Soleá y Rumba,” in which Donny McCaslin charges at the ensemble like a bull. “Cerulean Skies,” which opens with birdsong and proceeds like an upturned day, sun rising and falling as if carried on the winds.

I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors–the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,” she said in 2013. Her contingent (her bands range from 17 to 20 members) plays multiple instruments–trumpeters double on flugelhorn, saxophonists on flute, clarinet or piccolo. Like her mentor Evans, she’s discarded the traditional role of big band as dance music—reeds stacked up against horns, unison theme statements, steady 4/4 to keep the floor full—to make her group more Impressionist, a cloud formation. Some critics found her work meandering, saying her pieces were like introductions to songs that never appeared. David Hajdu called Schneider’s work “sheer beauty distilled to its essence. Everybody knows beauty to be one of the things art has always been here to provide. And yet beauty in music is, somehow, sometimes, just as hard to accept as ugliness.”

Schneider developed a core set of improvisers and writes for their personalities, as if they’re a well-worn acting troupe: McCaslin, guitarist Ben Monder, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, pianist Frank Kimbrough. “I like to use soloists to develop pieces,” she said. Where often in ensemble jazz, a soloist plays over a harmonic structure introduced by the full band, Schneider writes “solo sections that continue the harmonic development of the piece. They’re carrying the piece to some other place.”

3. Scherzo. Allegro

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Bowie attended the first night of a Schneider residency at Birdland, on 8 May 2014. The following day he visited her apartment to see if a collaboration could work. He had two compositions in rough stages—the piece that became “Sue” and another called “Bluebird” that, over half a year, became “Lazarus.” Schneider, deep in the weeds finishing her own album, only had time to work on one piece; “Sue” was the more viable prospect. “When I heard what he played, I thought ‘you know, I think I can put something of my world into that!‘”she said. “I sat at the piano and played around with harmony a bit and said, ‘maybe I can imagine doing something with this.’

At the beginning of June, Bowie and Schneider met at her home to work on the music together after she’d had a chance to experiment on her own with ideas for a few weeks. On 9 June 2014, Bowie and Schneider, along with McCaslin, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Jay Anderson and Mark Guiliana (McCaslin’s drummer, not Schneider’s) met for a rehearsal session to test out those ideas and feel out the structure. Schneider wanted Bowie to hear firsthand the direction of the piece before they got into the studio with the whole band. After that first rehearsal, Schneider and Bowie met yet again, made adjustments, and they all met for another rehearsal about ten days later. Schneider did her final tweaks and the orchestra recorded “Sue” at Avatar Studios on 24 July 2014.

It was a day’s work—instrumentation was finalized and group tracks recorded, Bowie cut his vocal, McCaslin and Keberle did overdubs.When Bowie put down his tracks, he had placed some of his final vocal lines in some unexpected places within the form, blurring the more obvious structure, which delighted Schneider.

She heard his lyrics for the first time at the recording session.”He changed all the lyrics at the end,” she said in 2015. “I kind of knew the direction the song was taking but then that changed—it became about Sue getting murdered for cheating. He wanted it to be really dark. I thought oh my gosh, am I going to get a lot of flak for contributing to a song about a man murdering a woman? But I didn’t write the lyrics. And it does sound rather good.”

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When “Sue” first aired on BBC Radio 6 (on 12 October 2014), reaction was mixed. It was defiantly odd and unsettling, hard to absorb at first. Bowie’s vocal is harsh in tone, keeping to a few notes in a narrow range, with buffeting gales of vibrato. His voice spars against the underlying music. The composer/writer Kevin Laskey pegged it as being akin to parlando, when an operatic singer declaims lines, speak-singing over more melodic orchestral backing.

It solved the problem of how to integrate “David Bowie” into a jazz band. He becomes an oversized version of himself, creating an unassimilable, coldly grandiose persona that the music has to work around and find ways to support. “Sue” is a simple piece, harmonically: just G major moving to E minor. Schneider works by constantly varying tones and instrumentation: take how many voices are heard over the song’s seven-plus minutes, from Keberle’s trombone grunts and Scott Robinson’s contrabass clarinet as undercurrent, from Guiliana’s skittering cymbal work to buzzing muted trumpets to the three-note splash of Kimbrough’s piano that ends the song. (There’s also apparently enough of Plastic Soul’s “Brand New Heavy” in the bassline to merit Plastic Soul getting composer’s credit with Bowie and Schneider.)

Schneider also provides a sense of simultaneity—as the song progresses, everyone moves but not together (they’re dancing out in space, as Bowie might have said). The horns move to a different tempo than Guiliana’s antic snare patterns, while Bowie has his own cryptic timing. The jostling factions—instruments making loose confederations that soon break apart—give him room to roam, to drag or compress his phrasings, to make long trellises of words. As Laskey wrote, “while some instruments are following Bowie’s melody, there are others playing a counter-line against it. This push and pull with the main melody helps integrate Bowie’s voice into the overall texture of the band.”

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What’s he singing? A short story: the fall of a marriage in eight short verses (six, in the single edit). His character begins a success—he got the job, they’ll move into the house at last. But something’s amiss. Sue is ill (“you’ll need to rest”), though the clinic’s called, the X-ray’s fine. (Or in another, darker reading, he’s beaten Sue enough to make her go to a walk-in clinic, but there’s no permanent damage.) He puts his faith in the material future: soon there will be the house, the money will come soon enough.

The “theme” melody (a four-note phrase carried by brass and flutes, sung by Bowie in the first two verses) is the motif for the absent Sue. As Bowie’s accusations grow, the motif returns in darker and more distorted shapes—take how the horns, sounding like a regiment left in tatters after a battle, sound the notes at 5:57. His story grows more bizarre: Sue, thinking of the grave, wants to die a virgin. But you have a son…oh, folly Sue!

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On Outside, Bowie had played with narrative, writing a murder mystery with no plot or resolution but filled with scads of random information. The story of “Sue” is straightforward enough, if riddled with blank spaces. The mystery lies more in Bowie’s performance, as his emotional language is hard to decipher. Is his character a fool, a dramatist, a psychotic? Sue herself doesn’t exist apart from his obsessive recounting of details and how he sings the long stressed vowel of her name—she’s the hole in the center of the song, its absent goddess. If Bowie took the name from Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith (one of his “top 100” books), it’s an apt reference: the Sue of Fingersmith is a con artist running a job yet who’s a dupe in a greater game; she’s the “I” in a story who doesn’t know that her identity is a fiction.

A murder happens off-stage. He dumps the body in the weeds, kisses the corpse, says goodbye. Or so he does in the single, which ends with the sixth verse. On the full version, he keeps talking, as if detectives have him in the box and he can’t stop condemning himself. He’s found a note, it tells the whole dirty tale: “you went with him…right from the start/ you went with thaat clooooowwwwwwwwn.” Has she left him? Is her murder a revenge fantasy? Is he sitting in his empty house sketching the gravestone of his “virgin” wife? No goodbyes this time. Sue, I never dreamed, as he starts the last verse. Or, “Sue”/”I Never Dreamed”: David Bowie’s latest single backed by “I Never Dreamed,” the first song that he ever recorded, with the Kon-Rads in 1963. One of its verses could have fit in “Sue”:

I never dreamed
Your caress could hurt so much
I never dreamed
That I would shake to your tender touch

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With Bowie keeping his motives dark, the song’s emotional weight shifts to the man who’d soon become his last great collaborator: Donny McCaslin.

In “Sue,” McCaslin is a free agent, improvising throughout, liberated from having to support the theme or Bowie’s top melody. “I don’t think I was thinking, ‘wow, I’m gonna blow for seven minutes!’ It evolved into that,” he said. “I didn’t know how much would be used, and they ended up using a lot of it.

Mixed right, McCaslin is heard from the start, a voice helping to assemble the song, then he embellishes on Bowie’s lines, commenting in the margins. In the break after the second verse, his agitated run up the scale is answered by a suspicious snarl from trombone. After the verse with Sue’s murder, there’s a shift to a stunned instrumental passage with McCaslin as a mourner, creeping out of the wake. He bores into the last verses, actively working against Bowie’s voice, hounding him, not giving him a moment alone. Then, shifted to center-mix, McCaslin becomes the focal point of the closing section, the orchestra falling into place around him as he plays in his altissimo range (getting higher-pitched notes on tenor saxophone via different fingerings).

The lead actor has left the theater; McCaslin has to carry on the show. It’s how their roles would play out in 2016.

4. Allegro

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Bowie had expressed interest in doing more pieces together, but Schneider couldn’t spare the time due to her upcoming recording with her band scheduled for the following month and recommended that he use McCaslin’s quartet instead (see next entry). By the start of 2015, Bowie, having demoed some new songs, had shifted plans. He’d found in the quartet a contemporary group as much fluent in rock and drum & bass as in jazz, and he’d ditched the idea of a full-out jazz collaboration. Instead it would be a classic Bowie genre-shuffle, making an album with as much affinities to Earthling as to Stan Kenton. Having used Schneider as an experiment, he then took the results and worked in his own laboratory.

Remaking “Sue” for Blackstar was arguably unnecessary. Where the original “Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” was a home demo that could be fleshed out, “Sue” was an intricately-arranged work that didn’t cry out for another take, plus it just had been released on a new compilation. Some theories: Bowie knew that live performance was behind him, so here was a way to take apart a song as if he was playing it on stage;  he already was reworking his older songs for Lazarus, so why not here; he felt “Sue” was needed for the album sequence but that the Schneider version wouldn’t fit.

Recorded in the second set of Blackstar sessions, in early February 2015, a fresh arrangement for “Sue” proved difficult. “The new version of ‘Sue’ took the longest,” McCaslin said. “Because the original version that we recorded with Maria is so specific, with all the orchestration.” His first suggestion was to cut a take with his band “just jamming, and there’s David singing that first part, then we’ll all just cue the sections.” This didn’t work, although “we did one or two passes which were really wild.” So he went back to Schneider’s score and slimmed down instrumentation, reducing the cast to saxophone, clarinet and alto flute, all of which he played, and giving a greater role to Ben Monder’s guitar (see below).

We’d get the roadmap [of songs] together and that took a while, especially on the arrangement for “Sue”, because it’s kind of nebulous and floaty,”added Tim Lefebvre, one of the players in the Blackstar session (along with keyboardist Jason Lindner and James Murphy on percussion) who hadn’t been on the Schneider version. “We figured out where to change, because it’s not an eight-bar groove kind of thing.”

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Among the changes were an increase in tempo and a tighter arrangement. No longer are there strands of instruments competing to be heard—things are locked in, moving at a gallop (it’s telling that Bowie gets through all eight verses in roughly the length of the single edit). For the remake, Bowie “wanted a bit more edge, a bit more urgency,” Guiliana said. “David encouraged us to really go for it. Tim [Lefebvre] was free to go to what I call ‘Tim World,’ which is one of my favorite musical places. By the end, we really get to another gear. I have some Gregg Keplinger metal percussion on my ride cymbal on this take—you can that hear stuff bouncing around!”

Lefebvre’s bass is the focal point of the remade “Sue”—he opens with a fat-sounding funk riff distorted by his Pork Loin pedal, then changes to his Octave pedal, with some faster hand-picking. He also uses a Corona pedal for slow, sludgy-sounding passages—towards the close he plays what he called “EDM kind of stuff,” bending the top strings of his Moollon-P bass, fixating on the same notes. Lefebvre described the wild breakdown section following the sixth verse (3:07) as “they gave us eight bars to just rage. Mark and I had played a lot of live drum ‘n’ bass together, and it’s shocking and amazing to hear that on a David Bowie record—they allowed us to do what we do on this album.”

Along with Lefebvre, Monder is the other major element of the remade “Sue” (compared to his role in the Schneider take, McCaslin is far more a secondary player, working as backdrops—a wasp-like buzzing after the first verse; finally introducing the “Sue” motif on clarinet at 2:02). Monder began by doubling Lefebvre’s bassline for the backing session, then Bowie asked him to essentially play the “David Torn” role in overdubs. He “wanted a bunch of really atmospheric stuff, so I did one pass with a lot of reverbed -out guitar,” Monder said. “My go-to trick was turning the mix on my Lexicon LXP-1 [an older half-rack reverb unit] all the way up, as well as putting the delay and decay all the way up—which makes this giant wash of sound and makes whatever note you play sound really good.” (Monder played the main riff on a hybrid Strat, switching to his 1982 Ibanez AS-50 for harmonics.)

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Like McCaslin’s soloing, the full-bore vocal performance of the Schneider version is also gone here. Bowie is quieter, more subdued, a shadow within the swirl of the mix, sounding beaten down (the clinic had called again; the x-rays weren’t good). While retaining some of his phrasings from the original, he uses less vibrato and is far less expressive and dramatic—I know you have a son is now half-spoken, like an aside that doesn’t matter. As Monder, Lefebvre and Guiliana build to a din, he sings the last verses resignedly, saying goodbye to himself as much as to Sue.

The two versions can seem like a handmade hardback edition of a book and its mass-produced paperback—if some subtleties are gone in the remake (I miss the gorgeous intricacy of Guiliana’s playing on the Schneider take, for instance), the thing now moves faster and packs a harder hit.

In the end, “Sue” became two songs existing at once (fittingly, Bowie gave it two titles), each seeming like the revision of the other. It’s a cusp song, the first puzzle in a new set. There’s nothing quite of its like in the Bowie catalog. One of his last great oddities.

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Recorded: (Schneider/DB single) (workshops) 9, 18 June 2014, (recording) 24 July 2014, Avatar Studios, NYC. Released 17 November 2014 as a 10” single and digital download (UK #85); full take led off Nothing Has Changed, released a day later; (Blackstar remake) (backing tracks) 2 February 2015, Magic Shop; (vocals) 23, 30 April 2015, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2016 on Blackstar.

Sources: Schneider: quotes from interviews including Judy Carmichael, 2004; Ben Ratliff, NYT, 17 November 2006; Best New Music, 2008; Jennifer Kelly, 2009; Zachary Woolfe, NYT, 12 April 2013; NME, 11 October 2014; Michael J. West, Jazztimes, 26 January 2015; Pamela Espeland, Minnesota Post, 2 Sept 2015; Brent Hallenbeck, Burlington Free Press, 14 April 2016. Bowie’s 1995 jazz quote from George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune. McCaslin: quotes include those from Uncut, January 2016; Mojo, January 2016; (Monder) Jon Wiederhorn, Yahoo Music, 13 January 2016; Lee Glynn, 14 January 2016; (Guiliana) Modern Drummer, 26 February 2016; (Lefebvre) Kevin Johnson, No Treble, 14 January 2016; Pedals & Effects, 7 March 2016 (this is a fun interview—Lefebvre seems like a great dude). Recording dates from Uncut and the indispensable Nicholas Pegg, whose new edition of The Complete David Bowie you should’ve purchased by now.

Photos: 1: “Tokyo, April 2014” (Eric Foto); DB as Kon-Rad, ca. 1963 (Roy Ainsworth). 2: Bowie and Schneider at Birdland, 8 May 2014 (photog unknown); downtown Windom, MN (Wikipedia); Schneider, Ensemble Denada, Victoria Jazz Club, Oslo 2014. 3: Bowie and Schneider at the Magic Shop, June 2014 (Jimmy King); stills from “Sue” video, directed by King and Tom Hingston. 4. Bowie w/Keberle and McCaslin, June 2014, Magic Shop (King).


Blackstar: The Album (Open Thread)

January 8, 2016

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It’s out: a new album, from “Blackstar” to “I Can’t Give Everything Away.” Whether you’re listening to it on LP or CD, streaming it on your phone or having someone hum bits of it to you, here’s a place to record your first reactions.

Try to keep responses moderate. If someone says “this album sucks,” don’t take it personally. If you happen to think that the album does indeed suck, please don’t write that people who like it are “sheep” or have bad taste. And so on.

Happy listening, happy new Bowie album day.