Metropolitan Jazz Octet | The Bowie Project Review
Metropolitan Jazz Octet Reimagines Bowie in The Bowie Project
by Darnell Jackson
In a daring blend of jazz artistry and rock spirit, the Metropolitan Jazz Octet (MJO) and vocalist Paul Marinaro released The Bowie Project on January 16, 2023, on Origin Records. Beyond merely grafting jazz onto the bones of Bowie’s oeuvre, the songs on the project span genres, eras, and reactions.
The roots of MJO date back to the golden age of the 1950s jazz scene in Chicago, adding a weighted legacy to this ambitious endeavor. David Bowie, the Starman himself, spent his early years immersed in jazz before he took the pop world by storm. “I was blown away by the complexities in jazz music,” Bowie was once quoted as saying, laying the groundwork for this seemingly unlikely but deeply resonant combination. His final project, Blackstar, even saw him collaborate with jazz musicians. The legacy and influence of these two entities offer a fruitful ground for musical innovation.
The musicianship on this album is outstanding, the ensemble is in sync, and the song arrangements are expertly written to feature both the ensemble and vocalist Paul Marinaro. Known for their ‘chamber jazz’—a fusion of big band resonance and small ensemble intimacy—MJO’s arrangements in “Space Oddity” and “Changes” deftly replace Bowie’s guitars and strings with a multi-layered horn section. Instrumentally, the band takes full advantage of their three reedmen, covering nine different instruments from flute to bassoon, providing a wildly expansive tonal palette. This orchestra coloring can be heard in the opening of “Changes.”
Marinaro’s vocal contributions are a celebration of Bowie’s style and his own unique jazz and cabaret bravura. His jazz-steeped, expressive baritone bends and molds itself around Bowie’s intricate melodies, offering fresh insights into familiar tunes. Whether he’s rendering the heartfelt “Letter to Hermione” or the enigmatic “Conversation Piece,” Marinaro treats each song as an exploration rather than an interpretation. One of the often overlooked yet significant aspects of Marinaro’s performance is his ability to rhythmically match the octet throughout the project.
The selection of tracks in The Bowie Project is not what you’d expect from a conventional tribute album. While hits like “Let’s Dance” make an appearance, transformed by the arrangement skills of Jim Gailloreto and Fred Simon into a sultry jazz number, the album is equally notable for including lesser-known Bowie gems like “5:15 The Angels Have Gone.” Arranged by John Kornegay and Mike Allemana, these less-celebrated tracks offer a new entry point into Bowie’s expansive musical universe. The choice to feature such songs reveals a deliberative approach aimed at showcasing Bowie’s range and complexity as an artist, rather than merely capitalizing on his most commercially successful works. This decision adds emotional and thematic depth to the album, creating a multidimensional tribute that appeals not just to casual listeners but also to die-hard Bowie aficionados. It’s an approach that enriches the listener’s experience, inviting them to delve deeper into Bowie’s oeuvre while highlighting MJO and Marinaro’s innovative artistry.
From the opening track, “Slow Burn,” a reflection on the dystopian reality of recent years, to the closing song, “Life on Mars?”—a timeless meditation on teenage angst and the need for escapism—there’s a haunting resonance throughout the album. The songs chosen speak to the isolation and anomie many have felt in recent times, making this not just a musical project but a poignant emotional journey as well.
The Bowie Project is a compelling reimagination that dares to examine Bowie’s work through the lens of chamber jazz. By doing so, MJO and Paul Marinaro have created a project that transcends the sum of its parts—a meeting of musical minds that offers a profound understanding of love, loss, and life. In this mesh of eras and genres, the album proves that whether in the cosmos of rock or the intricacies of jazz, the star of Bowie continues to shine brightly.
The Bowie Project
Release Date: January 16, 2023
Label: Origin Records