“No plan,” David Bowie muses in the first verse of a haunting new song by that title. “Wherever I may go / Just where, just there / I am.” These existential lyrics are inextricable from their real-world context: “No Plan” was conceived just as Bowie was confronting his own mortality, with a quiet determination to forge the experience into art.
Released this month as the title track of a surprise digital EP — one year to the day after Bowie’s album Blackstar, on what would have been his 70th birthday — the song also serves as a first-anniversary commemoration of the artist’s earthly departure.
And as was the case with Blackstar, rightly hailed as a standout album of 2016, “No Plan” makes excellent use of a limber band with Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone and flute, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on bass and Mark Guiliana on drums. By now this unit is probably most widely known as Bowie’s last band, despite an independent and impressive track record as the Donny McCaslin Quartet.
It was, of course, the distinctive power of the band’s combustion that first persuaded Bowie to harness it for his own expression. And in the months since his death, McCaslin and his band mates have tended carefully to the Blackstar flame, participating in select Bowie tributes and recording a couple of his songs for their own most recent album, Beyond Now.
During an NPR Tiny Desk Concert this month, the quartet performed an exquisite instrumental version of Bowie’s “Lazarus” — the death-haunted title song from Bowie’s theatrical musical, and a highlight of Blackstar — as well as “Shake Loose” and “Glory,” two emblematic originals from Beyond Now.
What binds all of these efforts is the artful stewardship of an afterlife — in cultural if not spiritual terms. One of the most striking things about Blackstar is how deftly it anticipated those questions, and how contingent its meaning was on Bowie’s final disappearing act.
“No Plan” adds a bittersweet new chapter to that story, partly through its musical details. Lefebvre plays a resonant acoustic bass rather than the fretted electric heard on Blackstar, imparting a sensation of earthy solidity. The beat is steady and muted, a solemn march. McCaslin’s tenor solo slowly gains airlift, but its start is low and breathy, just as Bowie sings the final haunting lyric in the song: “This is no place, but here I am / This is not quite yet.”
The Donny McCaslin Quartet is currently on tour. Among its upcoming dates: March 6 at Blues Alley in Washington D.C., March 7 at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia, March 16-19 at The Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and April 1 at Zankel Hall in New York. For more dates and information, visit donnymccaslin.com.