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).