Saxophonist Donny McCaslin has had quite a ride befriending and collaborating with David Bowie: He played on Bowie's 2014 single "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)," and, from January to May 2015, he, drummer Mark Guiliana, bassist Tim Lefebvre, and keyboardist/sequencer Jason Lindner recorded what became Bowie's last album, the art rock-jazz masterpiece,
, released Jan. 8, 2016, Bowie's 69th birthday, two days before his death.
"I hadn't thought about the date until today," McCaslin said Sunday. "That takes me back to last year and all the grief and sorrow of his passing."
McCaslin the bandleader - a saxophonist/flautist whose exquisite circular modal lines are reminiscent of Sonny Rollins - and Guiliana, Lefebvre, and Lindner have poured that sorrow into the Bowie-inspired Beyond Now and a tour that brings them to Arden Guild Hall this weekend.
McCaslin started writing his dynamics-rich songs for Beyond Now in summer 2015, with "David's music still very present in my head and influencing the output."
For a saxophonist whose Casting for Gravity in 2012 and Fast Future in 2015 were laced with electronic elements, finding inspiration in Bowie's eerily experimental work was just one more facet of his aesthetic.
He had long been deep into electro-disco artists such as Deadmau5 and Aphex Twin, as well as rapper Kendrick Lamar. "The melody on 'Shake Loose' was inspired by Kendrick," McCaslin says proudly of one of Beyond Now's most buoyant tracks.
Before meeting his electronic jazz collaborators in the 2000s, McCaslin was a young lion of the saxophone whose 1998 debut as a leader, Exile and Discovery, was an update of Sonny Rollins' muscular vibe.
"During that period, I was deeply influenced by Rollins, and I think really encountering the full weight of his artistry in my mid-20s really changed the course of my development in a positive way," McCaslin said.
He even recorded with Philadelphia avant-classical pianist Uri Caine on 2010's Perpetual Motion, after the two toured together as part of trumpeter Dave Douglas' quintet.
"I loved playing with Uri," says McCaslin. "I have history with another great Philly pianist, Orrin Evans, who played on Soar. We've done gigs with my Mingus Band, as well as me on his projects. Love him and his playing."
McCaslin's life and sound had changed by 2010, when then-producer David Binney suggested moving from acoustic to electric instrumentation and using Guiliana and Lefebvre, which led to the explosive Perpetual Motion.
While touring to promote that album, McCaslin got deeper into electronica and invited Lindner into the band. "That led to Casting for Gravity and everything since - I love the exploration of the intersection on improvised music and electronica."
Playing covers of Bowie's songs (along with originals from Beyond Now, Fast Future, and Casting for Gravity) is were McCaslin is now.
"The music continues to develop as we continue to grow and our interplay gets deeper and as we get into different areas of sonic, harmonic, and rhythm of exploration. I've been consumed with presenting Beyond Now live, but I'm listening to new music and starting to write a little bit. I'm excited to see what comes, excited to push myself into new territory."