The word “brass” suggests a certain stridency, a caustic loudness, a sound tinged with acid. Roy Eldridge played with brassy insouciance. Miles Davis less so. The trumpeters in jazz—from Armstrong up to today—have approached or avoided brassiness as a matter of personality. Only a few have covered the whole realm of trumpet sound.
Dave Douglas has a trumpet (and cornet) sound that jumps and drips and slinks, but it is not the most brassy sound. And he has often chosen to place his horn in places where a trumpet might seem out of place such as an Eastern European klezmer band or a string ensemble. But 2009 brings “Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy”, a recording that is self-consciously brassy, a product of the 2005 Festival of New Trumpet Music.
Spirit Moves is also plainly the product of the artistry of the late trumpeter Lester Bowie. Bowie’s Brass Fantasy band was a nonet (or sometimes a larger group) that used the brass band tradition to interpret popular music and to present original music that combined wit, funk, and harmonic gloss. Bowie and his band arranged brass and drums to create a glorious, blowzy mess of fun. They could be lyrical and biting in turn. Douglas, in naming his band “Brass Ecstasy”, plainly is working in Bowie’s shadow. He is also employing two players, trombonist Luis Bonilla and Vincent Chancey on French horn, who are veterans of Bowie’s group. But the differences are crucial as well.
Brass Ecstasy is a quintet, half the size of Fantasy. And both in Douglas’s arrangements and in the band’s playing style, this is a less assertive affair. Douglas still uses the recognizable elements of brass band music—parade rhythms, bold harmonies, melodies passed around to different instruments—but he arrays them with a greater sense of impressionism and a rich vein of lyricism. On “The View from Blue Mountain”, drummer Nasheet Waits plays a popping but lite Latin groove that is lifted gently by a modern and melodic “bass” line played by Marcus Rojas’s tuba. The keening melody is expressed by horn and trumpet together while the trombone plays a mellow harmony. It’s brass band music by way of Kind of Blue. “Rava”, a nod to the outstanding Italian trumpeter, is even more sensuous and sensitive, with Chancey and Bonilla singing in a modern parallel harmony beneath Douglas’s butter-toned lead. Rojas plays with grace while Waits lightly tap dances beneath it all.
Some of the material on Spirit Moves defies its brass band setting by effectively simulating other jazz forms. “Twilight of the Dogs” sounds remarkably like a modern big band chart from the 1960s, with sophisticated harmonies being expressed in effective contrapuntal writing and an azure sense of hip. “Fats” has a direct walking swing you would expect of a very different kind of quintet. “The Brass Ring” develops slowly like a classical chorale, but it is also rich with asymmetrical silences and “new music” dissonance. Not exactly Sousa-esque.
Not that all of Spirit Moves is a kind of brass pastel. The opener, “This Love Affair” by Rufus Wainwright, is played broadly as a New Orleans funeral dirge, with growls and smears a-plenty. Even here, however, the tune’s harmonic movement brings things a bit of a shimmer. “Bowie”, of course, has a wacky hop to it, bringing forth the madcap image of Lester, in his long white jacket or his top hat, the brass popping in ragged syncopation against the drums, then the whole thing devolves into a march that morphs before your eyes into quick-walking free swing. Not mellow at all.
The Bowie-est thing here is surely Douglas’s arrangement of Otis Redding’s “Mr. Pitiful”, a pure natural number, given the terrific horn line that was part of the original. Joy jumps through the air when you listen to this one. This tune is followed by two others that work wonders by demonstrating how easily Douglas can get the brass band form to work with disparate styles. “Great Awakening” is a gospel waltz that lets the whole band dig itself deep into the earth. Listening to Rojas anchor this tune alone justifies the project. Then the closer: Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Played with a slinky midnight moodiness by the whole group, this tune is a complete transformation and makes the tune seems fresh again. While Douglas plays the melody with a Harmon mute, he does not fall into a Miles Davis mood, making the final statement from this band seem all that more original.
But that’s the remarkable strength of Brass Ecstasy. It is a project that, beginning from its name, ought to be a kind of tribute. And it is, in part. But the best tribute to Lester Bowie, of course, is to do something original and surprising. And Dave Douglas manages that here by using a smaller band that remains rich, subtle, impressionistic, and versatile—but still fun. Maybe it was a bit arrogant to name his latest band Brass Ecstasy. But, you know, that’s what it is.