In the words of David Bowie: "Changes."
The Metropolitan Jazz Octet's two previous albums teem with unadulterated jazz. Paul Marinaro is a hard-swinging, expressive baritone steeped in the Great American Songbook and the jazz tradition. So what in the galaxy are they doing with the music of pop legend—and onetime glam rocker, dancehall king, visual visionary, music man of multiple personae, and cultural icon—David Bowie?
Historians might note that Bowie started playing jazz saxophone in his teens, and on his final album, Blackstar, he collaborated with jazz star Donny McCaslin's band. But that's not the connection here: the Bowie compositions on this album had nothing to do with jazz. They belong to a glittering body of work that gained new adherents after Bowie's death at the start of 2016 (two days after Blackstar's release). Among those were Marinaro and the MJO's co-founder, reedman Jim Gailloreto.
When Marinaro first heard Blackstar, the album "stopped me in my tracks," he recalls. And as he examined more of Bowie's history, he found a raft of songs that resonated with the anomie and isolation that, for him and so many others, rose from the riven politics of the late 2010s. Coincidentally, Gailloreto also began paying closer attention to Bowie's back catalog: like most of his contemporaries, he had heard the hit records growing up, and now he wanted to hear more. But although both Marinaro and Gailloreto knew and admired each other's work—and had even discussed a possible joint project—neither of them guessed that Bowie's music would supply the setting.
Marinaro's silky technique and rangy versatility—he has sung in contexts from voice-guitar duo to full-blown jazz orchestra—has gained him a large and devoted cadre of listeners. But by 2018, he was considering something quite beyond his comfort zone. He began to occasionally perform Bowie's wonderfully evocative lament, "5:15 The Angels Have Gone," in an arrangement crafted by guitarist Mike Allemana. At the same time, Marinaro and Gailloreto began discussing a possible joint project. The singer, now deep into Bowie's songbook, suggested "the probably crazy idea" of tackling the Thin White Duke's repertoire; the saxophonist readily agreed. Having already begun to examine ways of adapting Bowie's songs, with their atypical pop melodies and engaging harmonies, Gailloreto jumped at the chance to place both Bowie's music, and Marinaro's instrument, within the MJO soundscape.
And why not? Marinaro's voice, sometimes brash, sometimes tender, fuses a saxophone's fluidity and a trumpet's brassy edge, in a lineage that goes back to Sinatra and Bennett. He sings with a bassist's sure sense of time. He phrases in ways that serve the melodic line as well as the words within: an interpretative nuance can speak whole sagas. What's more, Marinaro qualifies as a true musician, more than "just a singer"; in the words of the octet's co-founder John Kornegay, "He understands his place in the totality" of each arrangement. Marinaro hears himself as another part of this verdant octet, rather than the centerpiece out front.
Too big to call a "combo," too small to qualify as an "orchestra," the MJO boasts the maneuverability of the first and the power of the second. Bob Sutter, the band's regular pianist, has called the octet "both a big small band and a small big band"—a sort of "chamber big band," and no one's come up with a better description. The original MJO was formed in the late 1950s by Chicago saxophonist and arranger Tom Hilliard, with whom Gailloreto and Sutter both studied decades later, as did Kornegay; he and Gailloreto handle virtually all the band's arrangements.
They have plenty of resources. The MJO's three reedmen cover nine separate instruments, ranging from flute to bassoon and including all the saxophones, providing a wildly expansive tonal palette (especially for a band this size). Check out the introduction to Bowie's 1969 heartbreak song, "Letter to Hermione": John Kornegay's arrangement stages a quiet riot of intertwined clarinet, bass clarinet, piano, flute, and muted trumpet—just one example of the vibrant voicings herein. On "Let's Dance," converted from post-disco pulse to sultry romance, Gailloreto swirls baritone and tenor saxophones, brass, and piano into a starry night of audible colors, which parts to open a path for his tenor solo. His trademark use of counterpoint comes to the fore on "Changes" (1971), a song recognizable to even Bowie agnostics. And both men's command of section writing—on such tracks as "Stay" and "5:15 The Angels Have Gone"—allows the octet to punch way above its weight, doing the work of jazz orchestras twice its size.
Within this kaleidoscopic diorama of sound, and in addition to Marinaro's voice, the crisp coolness of vibraphone opens a new dimension, courtesy of Mike Freeman, a friend of Gailloreto's since their days at DePaul University in Chicago. "I think the salient timbral addition, on almost every tune, is the vibes," Gailloreto says; no argument there. The instrument can provide a metallic jolt, as on "I Would Be Your Slave," while its celestial overtones add just the right speck of stardust to "Space Oddity," Bowie's space-age paean to loneliness. On "Life on Mars?" vibes and marimba enhance the cinematic scope of the arrangement. Throughout, Freeman's brief solos slice through the ensembles like a suede gimlet, and his playing on "Stay" is an album highlight.
For several of these arrangements, Gailloreto called in reinforcements, asking several of Chicago's best arrangers to provide some sparks. In his own work, Gailloreto usually starts with a "treatment," a sort of birds-eye sketch of the shape and scope, the tempo and the harmonic scheme, of a composition or arrangement. Then he sits down to add the fine details of orchestration, such as the actual notes and who gets to play them. But on The Bowie Project, he reached out to four accomplished Chicago musicians—guitarists Allemana and John McLean, and pianists Fred Simon and Ben Lewis—to supply the treatments that he and Kornegay would then orchestrate. (The nationally renowned Chicago arranger Tom Matta wrote one more chart from start to end.)
"That's the other aspect to this album," Gailloreto says. "There's the Bowie material, and then the collaboration with Paul—how he sees Bowie, what inspired him to pick these songs, and to share that with us. But it's also a writers' CD," in that it widens the MJO's point of view. "For instance, on 'Let's Dance,' Fred Simon did a treatment that I would never even conceive—just as Mike, John, and Ben came up with such interesting takes on their tunes. We didn't want to reinvent Bowie, or dissect these songs. But having people with these skill sets, to reimagine some of the harmonies and some of the 'feels,' was great."
(That list of arrangers does not include Marinaro, but it well could have: his immersion in Bowie's lyrics proved invaluable to the orchestrators, and his interpretation of these songs even helped guide the writing. Says Kornegay, "I consulted with Paul several times to get a read on what the lyrics meant to him, and he helped clarify the direction of my arrangement in enhancing what he wanted to convey.")
The arrangements and the performances are a joy to hear, even if the arc of the album sends a different message. As Gailloreto notes, "There's some fun songs here, but more than a few that are dark; songs that question beliefs, question the morality of the times"—quite in keeping with an album born in the midst of national turmoil, and recorded during the COVID-19 pandemic. "The album opens with 'Slow Burn,' a dystopian set of lyrics, that felt very appropriate at the tail end of the Trump years." Says Marinaro, "I think it sets the tone of what's to follow. Bowie paints this almost apocalyptic world: 'Here shall we live in this terrible town.' There's this current of fear overhead, fear underground. And as the album progresses, there's a kind of collective understanding of what that feels like."
The album ender, "Life on Mars?" outlines the frustration of teen angst and the need for escapism—timely topics in 1971, when Bowie wrote it, and perhaps even more so today. One of his earliest songs, the heart-wrenching "Conversation Piece," quietly tells "a very specific story about a lost soul who drowns himself," Marinaro recounts. "How do you interpret such a painful moment?" The singer immediately gravitated toward a much later song, "I Would Be Your Slave" (2002), galvanized by the lyrics' "angry plea to God, or whatever your notion of what that might be, to show themselves"—another brick in the wall of solitude and isolation. And "5:15 The Angels Have Gone" (the song that paved the way to this disc) intimately personalizes the emotions of loss and disconnection.
It's a haunting song, and a haunted song, filled with regret—but also resolve. Marinaro first unveiled it, with some trepidation, at Winter's Jazz Club in Chicago in 2018; in the audience that night, I was surprised and then impressed with how he bridged the apparent chasm between his own style and Bowie's mystique. That it eventually led to this unicorn of an album constitutes a welcome oddity of its own.
In his long and eclectic career, Bowie wrote dozens of songs that rub shoulders with the aching ballads, introspective confessionals, and inventive fantasies in the latest edition of the Great American Songbook. The songs on this album are more than strong enough to stand on their own. They don't require nods to the past. The words and music paint a picture even when you take his original performance out of the frame.
So forego the original recordings. Those are not the measure of comparison. In the arrangements and orchestrations, Gailloreto, Kornegay, and their team of arrangers steer clear of what came before; for his part, Marinaro hasn't tried to emulate Bowie at all. Pretend you've never heard these songs in the first place and allow these artists—modern masters of the genre Bowie once studied, and always respected—to recast his repertoire, illuminating even his darker songs in light of recent events.
And remember, wherever you are, it's 5:15 somewhere.