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Artist’s Choice: David Bowie’s Musicality

"Blackstar" keyboardist Jason Lindner picks his Bowie favorites

Jason Lindner
David Bowie

I first heard Bowie when I was 10 years old, when his song “Let’s Dance” came out. But Earthling, released in 1997, was the album that actually made me start checking out David Bowie. When I worked with him on Blackstar, he was so accessible and so down-to-earth; there was a moment of being starstruck, but I think the last thing he would have wanted was something that could have hindered his ability to make music. It really was a comfortable and beautiful situation to work in. Most of these songs are not necessarily so well known, but all of them communicate the man’s musical brilliance and imagination.

Low (RCA, 1977)

I love the repetitive unison notes, which are reminiscent of church bells or a clock, and give the feeling of the passage of time. It feels ominous until the melody comes in. This is one of the most beautiful and sad and melancholic melodies that I’ve heard. I love how they strategically placed harmonic tones against key melody notes to bring them out. Otherwise it’s very sparse, melody against bass. It’s very minimal. I love Brian Eno’s sounds; they’re uniquely colorful and characteristic.

Low (RCA, 1977)

This is Bowie on sax; sax was his first instrument. He probably doesn’t have chops or versatility, but he uses the instrument in a sonic way and in an emotional, expressive way. I’m kind of a bassline freak, so those low, percussive, fat synth tones against the sustained backdrop also get me. I love the reversed instrument sounds, and Eno’s synth work is amazing. This song is ahead of its time, really beautiful and modern and ambient. It has such a sense of infiniteness. This is a track I can listen to endlessly.

“Let’s Dance”
Let’s Dance (EMI, 1983)

I grew up with this song. It was the era of early hip-hop and freestyle, when drum machines and DJs were in full effect-the dawn of the digital age. It’s so unmistakably the work of producer Nile Rodgers. The beat on this track is so Bootsy Collins/George Clinton/Parliament/Prince. It’s not James Brown-style syncopated funk from the ’70s; it’s early-’80s on-the-1 funk. There’s no mistaking where the beat is. They’re going to give it to you every single time and play it stronger every single time.

“Battle for Britain (The Letter)”
Earthling (Virgin, 1997)

Drummer Zachary Alford is drawing from drum ‘n’ bass or jungle, which is a U.K. phenomenon. It’s electronic music, but this is probably one of the first recordings of a drummer playing that stuff live. It sounds like the drummer tracked it and then brought it back to the table and they sped it up. What also strikes me is the garbled, sampled guitar noise. Reeves Gabrels’ guitar sounds are so intense-that ’80s pop/heavy-rock guitar sound. I love the harmonic progression on the chorus, and I love Mike Garson’s abstract stride solo on an old-timey-sounding piano.

“If You Can See Me”
The Next Day (ISO/Columbia, 2013)

This is one of the most interesting and intense experimental Bowie songs of recent years. His longtime bassist Gail Ann Dorsey is also singing on the intro, and she has a beautiful, powerful voice. There’s a lot of space in the song. There’s a line than repeats every so often and a fast drum beat with some sparseness behind it. It has really powerful lyrical imagery, like evil power or something. Also, technically speaking, the drums are in 4 but it’s hard to figure out what everything else is in, which I find interesting. It’s cool that he would venture to do something like that.

“Where Are We Now?”
The Next Day (ISO/Columbia, 2013)

It’s a beautiful ballad, completely melancholic. It’s really simple but there are all these polychords, which otherwise would harmonically define a jazz standard. Polychords are a more modern sound, a modern phenomenon in harmony. I’ve analyzed the song and I know that the chorus is in a different key than the verses. It’s nothing that deep but it’s really effective and beautiful.

“Girl Loves Me”
BLACKSTAR (ISO/Columbia, 2016)

The lyrics are pretty insane. They’re written in a special kind of dialect. Critics have said that it’s the language used in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but I think it’s a mix of that and old sailor dialect. When the band heard the demo we said, “What the hell? What are these words?” He explained it a little bit in the studio. There’s a feeling of desperation in it, and I love the beat and what the song does harmonically. The bass note is not representative of the key or the root; it’s really coloristic.

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”
BLACKSTAR (ISO/Columbia, 2016)

Compositionally the bass part has more of a rhythmic and less of a harmonic function; the bassline remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple notes shifting to complement the progression. Tim Lefebvre’s sonic choices are so big. He also does something really cool called “dropping subs.” If you’re listening on a system with a subwoofer you’ll hear it; it’s not something you’d hear on an iPhone or a laptop speaker. Donny McCaslin is killing the sax solo so hard on this one, and drummer Mark Guiliana is driving that beat into the ground at the same time. It gets so intense that David actually screams a couple of times at the end. The feeling on that is tremendous.

[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Jason Lindner is a New York-based keyboardist and composer who has recorded extensively as a sideman and a leader, including albums with his big band and his trio Now Vs Now. As a member of the Donny McCaslin Quartet, Lindner contributed to David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar.

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Originally Published