David Bowie and Maria Schneider’s Enigmatic Collaboration

A big band project, but not that Duke

David Bowie
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Maria Schneider and David Bowie
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Even for a man known as a musical chameleon, David Bowie’s latest creative direction was a surprise. On Oct. 8, the legendary rocker announced via press release that he had completed a new recording, a track entitled “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” to be released in November as a limited-edition single and as part of a career retrospective called Nothing Has Changed (Columbia/Legacy). The surprise, however, was that “Sue” was a collaboration with Maria Schneider, the award-winning jazz composer and bandleader, featuring her namesake orchestra and solos by tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trombonist Ryan Keberle.

Four days later, the seven-minute track premiered on BBC’s Radio 6, and from there it (inevitably) leaked to YouTube. It’s a dense, dark, theatrical piece, with betrayal and murder in the lyrics (by Bowie alone) and heavy dissonance in the music (by Bowie and Schneider together), and has met with deep division among Bowie’s fans. “Some people hate it!” says Schneider, good-naturedly, at her home in New York City. “Some love it; some are probably on the fence. And it’s been funny to read some of the Internet comments: ‘I hate jazz!'”

Schneider was already knee-deep in her orchestra’s forthcoming album when she received a call from Bowie’s assistant in May. “[She] said that David wanted to talk to me,” she recalls. “And he approached me about collaborating and doing something. I was a little bit reticent, because I was doing my own thing and was nervous about having time.” But Bowie, who also lives in New York, won her over. He went to Birdland to see the orchestra and to her home the next day with a rough demo. “When I heard what he played,” says Schneider, “I thought, ‘You know, I think I can put something of my world into that! Maybe I can do this!’ So I said, ‘OK, I’m going to make my summer really crazy and add one more thing on my plate.'”

The two worked closely together, exchanging and trying out new ideas-but freely rejecting them as well. “He was very good at saying, ‘No, I don’t like that. Yes, I love that.’ And that made it really easy, that he didn’t hem and haw around things he didn’t like,” says Schneider. The music came first; the words followed and reshaped the music around them. The opposite was also true, with Bowie’s final lyrics adapted to what he and Schneider had written. Schneider and Bowie then called in the orchestra’s rhythm section to workshop the tune-along with McCaslin and Keberle, whom Bowie had handpicked to solo. After further refinement they went into the studio in July. It took only a few takes, with the band laying down their parts before Bowie added the vocal; Schneider had imagined that he would sing in between the orchestral figures she had arranged, but his delivery instead crossed bar lines and overlapped organically with the ensemble. “It was kind of mind-blowing,” she says. “He automatically heard the unexpected.”

McCaslin and Keberle then took turns soloing over the track, with instructions from Schneider to work with the contour of Bowie’s vocal, not that of the orchestra. “It kind of evolved,” McCaslin says. “I don’t think I was thinking, ‘Wow, I’m gonna blow for seven minutes!’ It evolved into that. I didn’t know how much would be used, and they ended up using a lot of it.”

Keberle recalls being impressed by the rock star’s lack of ego. “Here’s one of the greatest icons of our time, his stretch limo is sitting outside, and he’s very unassuming and deferential,” he says. “Maria asked him questions, and he’d say, ‘Whatever you think.’ I think he understood that jazz is a collaboration, a communication.”

Bowie is maintaining media silence about the project, making it hard to know what “Sue” signifies about his future musical direction. (Given his unpredictability, Bowie himself may not know.) Schneider, however, is open to being part of it. “I would enjoy collaborating again, definitely,” she says. “If he wanted to do that again, I would enjoy doing that. … We’ll see.”