About two years ago, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas released a beautiful, singular record called Be Still in which his quintet — along with a fold singer — interpreted a batch of hymns and devotional music to stunning, contemplative results. Douglas is a composer and musician of extremely catholic tastes and influences, but his latest recording returns to the folk tradition through jazz, and it’s another success.
Present Joys is the first ever recorded set of duets between Douglas and his longtime collaborator, pianist Uri Caine. Caine was the first pianist in Douglas’s quintet, and they have a longstanding musical relationship, but here they are for the first time going mano a mano. At last.
The material, however, is unique. These songs either came from or were inspired by the American “shape-note singing” tradition. Shape-note is a kind of musical notation that was designed to make reading music easier for non-musicians, giving the heads of the notes different shapes to indicate the note’s relative interval from other notes in the scale — thus allowing music to be written without “flats and sharps” and thus seemingly without a “key signature”. This notation was used in some sets of hymn books such as The Sacred Harp, Ye Olde New England Psalm Tunes and The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion. These artifacts essentially preserved for generations a particular style of American sacred folk music, one with a simplicity and direct beauty that Douglas and Caine seek to express in Present Joys. Half of the ten songs here are from these sources — mainly public domain hymns that the musicians play in a largely simple style, at least at first. The other five are Douglas originals that in varying degrees simulate this tradition.
The results are quite extraordinary.
From these relatively simple themes, themes that use mainly consonant harmonies that reflect the shape-note tradition, Douglas and Caine make gradual and interesting departures. The title tune, “Present Joys” is a stately piece of devotional music that makes the most obvious tradition to “jazz”. The stepping clarity of the song’s theme is easily turned into a “walk” by Caine’s left hand, and the pair simply superimposes a set of blues harmonies that make the I-IV-V of the church music into a version of what our modern ears crave as a 12-bar blues. The duo shifts back and forth between styles for a while, allowing the main theme reemerge, swung like crazy, not to mention re-imagined in secular style.
At the other end of the spectrum is “Confidence”, a melancholy ballad theme with a very simply melody. Douglas plays plainly in his middle register before giving way to a statement by Caine, then back again. And while there is nothing “swinging” about this treatment, both players enjoy freedom amidst the rubato performance so that jazz voicings and note choices gradually develop the song into a flowing jazz statement. Suddenly, though, the song is reversed, as Caine locks up the tempo and theme is stated in traditional form at the very end, all the jazz elements bleached out. Breathtaking.
At its most contemplative and traditional, Present Joys lets these two adventurous players revel in the constraint of the simple written forms of these songs. “Soar Away” begins with a very simple fugue-type statement and then brings in a second theme in ballad form. As this contrast repeats throughout the performance, the departures into variation limited, measured, with just hints of the jazz traditional oozing through the clarity. And it’s that restraint that works so well.
The original songs don’t try to mimic the ingredients of the traditional material, but they stay within a framework of clarity and brevity. “Ham Fist” swings and uses blues elements, but it has Douglas and Caine trading brief statements of melody and improvisation much the way “Present Joys” and “Soar Away” work in alternating statements of style or instrumentation. “Seven Seas” has the grooving movement of a Keith Jarrett-style gospel workout, including even a recurring lick for Caine’s lower register that punctuates each chorus. But the connection back, from devotional music to gospel, makes sense. “End to End” is more harmonically open-ended, with piano and trumpet playing a game of run-and-chase with a very linear melody that sounds more like the jazz avant-garde. But even here, the form begins with a formality of rhythm, as if Douglas were composing it with the simplified classicism of “Soar Away” in mind.
It is notable that the CD case for Present Joys divides the songs into two “sides”, A and B, like an LP. (It’s also lovely that the case features art by Peter Schumann of Bread and Puppet Theater, the singular American institution based in Glover, Vermont, with which Douglas has collaborated.) The first side contains four traditional songs and one original, with Side B flipping the mix. The order of the songs matters. The last two songs are the most shimmeringly beautiful: “Old Putt”, a solo piece for Caine, and then “Zero Hour”, which brings Douglas back with a gentle and melancholy theme that perfectly blends a modern jazz sensibility with the elegance of the older music to which tribute is paid on this recording.
I suppose it’s easy to embrace the tendency of adventurous musicians, of any artists with a taste for the edgy, to move back to lyricism and tradition. I’m wary of my affection for this recording and for Be Still for that reason, in the same way that I hesitate to laud Coltrane’s Ballads album. But these records are not retreats of bold playing at all — they are an expansion of a great artist’s sensibility, a way the artist has found to dare himself to focus, to refine, to move in new ways.
Dave Douglas and Uri Caine are good enough to stand up to making “pretty” music, even traditional music. They pass the test and come out still surprising us.
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