In the studio

On 1 June 2014, on Maria Schneider’s recommendation, David Bowie saw Donny McCaslin’s group perform at 55 Bar in Manhattan. In addition to performing on ‘Sue’, the members – McCaslin, Tim Lefebvre on bass, Jason Lindner on keyboards, and Mark Guiliana on drums – all became part of Bowie’s backing band on Blackstar.

For years he wanted to work with Maria Schneider, the composer, and she has a 17- or 19-piece big band. After the sessions that led to the big band version of ‘Sue’, she said, ‘Check out Donny McCaslin’s group. He’s got an amazing group, based in New York.’ Donny is the solo saxophone player on ‘Sue’ – it’s one of the most soulful saxophone solos David and I ever heard. It always made us weep, especially the end part. He’s such a passionate player. So David went to a nightclub in New York – I had the date in my calendar but I completely missed that show… anyway, David saw Donny’s band and was totally convinced that he wanted to work with them.
Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

9 June saw the first of three rehearsal sessions held at Manhattan’s Euphoria Studios. It involved Bowie, Schneider, McCaslin, Guiliana, guitarist Ben Monder, trombonist Ryan Keberle, and double bassist Jay Anderson.

Initially we worked from David’s demo of the untitled song. Over the course of three long sessions in a rehearsal studio, [Maria] and core members of her band jammed over the bassline for several hours. After this, Maria and David met to finalise the arrangement and structure, and Maria kept me in the picture by sending me musical scores of her updates – her writing was very meticulous. When the day arrived to record the piece with the full 17-piece band, David handed lyrics to Maria, myself and our engineer – and it was only then we learned it was called ‘Sue’.
Tony Visconti
NME, 11 October 2014

With rehearsals complete, the first version of ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ was recorded at Avatar Studios, at 441 West 53rd Street in Manhattan, New York City.

The session took place on 24 July 2014. In addition to David Bowie and bandleader Maria Schneider, there were 17 musicians. McCaslin and trombonist Ryan Keberle overdubbed multiple solos and lead lines, often weaving around Bowie’s vocals.

I’d had an idea for an open section later in the piece where he says, ‘Sue… Goodbye’. I love that section. He does the melody really slowly over it. I have to confess I think it’s spectacular. We honed it down a little more. I just recorded it – it was workshopping the tune with the players to say, I’m going to take that and develop on that. Let’s skip that. I said to David it felt like there was a danger where it was a jazz tune with David Bowie on it, or with him guesting. He wanted that improvisation. Jazz was his first love – it’s amazing he went out with jazz. That’s why I knew that he would work well with Donny McCaslin.

Then there’s the free section with the drums going. I’m conducting out of time, then all of a sudden it had to get in time – in with the drums. It was scary for me but we got it done. The soloing had to be interacted with David. We said, ‘OK, David: put down your track.’ Unwarmed up, had never sung it with the horns – he went in there to do a scratch track, and that’s what they used. WHen he’s singing it at the end over that rubato section – he’s with them, and not with them, in a great way.

The pianist in my band – Frank Kimbrough – he says discovering it in that moment, that first moment, where you’re not sure what you’re doing, is very powerful and beautiful. David in that moment singing, ‘Sue… I found your note’. He’s together but not totally together and that’s just right. If he’d done that five times maybe it would be more together, more tight, but it wouldn’t be so magical or evocative, as unhinged. That’s the thing – he sounds unhinged, as he should.

Maria Schneider
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Several members of Schneider’s orchestra were multi-instrumentalists. McCaslin contributed soprano and tenor saxophone; Jesse Han played flute, alto flute, and bass flute; David Pietro played alto flute, clarinet, and soprano sax; Scott Robinson played clarinet, bass clarinet, and contrabass clarinet; Tony Kadleck, Greg Gisbert, Augie Haas, and Mike Rodriguez each contributed trumpet and fluegelhorn; and George Flynn played bass trombone and contrabass trombone.

The remaining musicians focused on a single instrument: Rich Perry on tenor sax; Ryan Keberle, Keith O’Quinn, and Marshall Gilkes on trombone; Ben Monder on guitar; Frank Kimbrough on piano; Jay Anderson on double bass; and Mark Guiliana on drums.

The first version of the cut ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’ – which came out a couple of years ago as a bonus track on Nothing Has Changed – was put together in collaboration with my friend Maria Schneider, who I’ve worked with for years. I was talking to her on the phone one day and she goes, “You know, David Bowie is coming over to my apartment,” and I was just, like, “What?” She invited me to take part in the session that came from that meeting. We all met and it was one rehearsal and maybe one day in the studio tracking the tune.
Ben Monder
Premier Guitar, 15 January 2016

Bowie handed out a lyric sheet to the musicians at the start of the session. They also worked to “quite minimal” musical charts, according to Mark Guiliana, allowing considerable freedom to improvise and change the music during the session.

According to Schneider, Bowie’s lyrics had changed since his demos and their earlier collaborations.

He changed all the lyrics at the end. I never really knew what the lyrics were. I kind of knew the direction the song was taking, but then that changed, and it became about Sue getting murdered for cheating. He wanted it to be really dark.

I thought – oh my gosh, am I going to get a lot of flack for contributing to a song about a man murdering a woman? But I didn’t write the lyrics. And it does sound rather good.

Maria Schneider
MinnPost, 2 September 2015