Jazz isn’t afraid to mix it up with other kinds of music, and certainly an artist as bold as trumpeter Dave Douglas isn’t going to shy away from stylistic collision. Douglas’s earlier work mixed jazz with Balkan music, film music, brass band elements, electronics—so what’s the big deal in taking on a set of hymns or many elements of folk music?
But it’s rare that the particular elements that mix on Be Still, the latest from Douglas’s shimmering jazz quintet, fuse so convincingly and effortlessly. This recording, inspired by the passing of the leader’s mother and a list of hymns and spiritual folk songs that she chose for her own service, is majestic. Douglas uses his quintet in new ways to work with a different kind of source material. And the jazz group is supplemented brilliantly by Aoife O’Donovan, a young singer with a clarion but gentle gravity to her voice.
Be Still is a triumph, a beauty, a revelation. It’s as a good a jazz record as 2012 is likely to produce—and maybe it’s not quite a jazz record at all.
First, this is a record of crystalline quiet. O’Donovan sings gently, with a soft and often breathy approach. She’s no stranger to this kind of artistic fusion, having sung with the Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s trailblazing mixture of jazz, bluegrass and klezmer, and being the main voice of Crooked Still, a hip “newgrass” outfit. Douglas’s arrangements in support of her are full of space and gentle care. On “Barbara Allen”, for example, Douglas starts by deploying O’Donovan’s voice as a wordless instrument in a chorale written out for trumpet, saxophone, piano, bowed bass, and voice. The lyrics are then supported by a very spare set of statements by the horns only, then horns and piano. O’Donovan is given lengths of as much as eight slow bars to sing without accompaniment, making the reentry to the quiet instrumental work that much more dramatic.
Not that drummer Rudy Royston has no role here. His tuneful cymbal work on “Be Still My Soul” is essential to balancing the performance. But his role on this tune is hardly that of a typical jazz drummer. Mainly, he performs as colorist, filling the atmosphere around the carefully phrased melody with a series of pings and shimmers, flinging sparks around the grounding provided by bassist Linda Oh and the transparent piano work of Matt Mitchell. Later, as Douglas takes the disc’s first improvised solo, Royston begins playing loose time, which builds to be even more dramatic under the tenor saxophone solo by Jon Irabagon. This track is arguably a masterpiece, and Royston is a critical reason for that.
But Douglas uses the band different ways on different tracks. “High on the Mountain” is essentially a bluegrass tune, and he uses a horn arrangement on the chorus that sets up the kind of drone that a different band would get out of a fiddle. Royston plays a highly syncopated train beat under the verse while the leader plays a flowing jazz counterpoint to the vocal melody. On “God Be With You”, however, the trumpet takes the first reading of the melody, loosely, setting up the stately hymn as a kind of jazz ballad. After O’Donovan’s statement of the melody, the horns come in together with a wholly separate melody that launches Irabagon into a short but surging improvisation. Each of the approaches seems just right for its tune.
Three of the songs here are instrumental, yet they do not feel out of place or ultimately much different in character from the more traditional material. “Whither Must I Wander”, in fact, is a known hymn that the quartet (minus tenor) performs with great feeling but no words. The first two minutes or so feature only Mitchell and Douglas, with the two men drawing maximum feeling from the simple tune. Soon, though, Linda Oh joins on bass and Royston gets in on the action. Douglas’s tone is raw around the edges even as it’s big—he lets his sound veer outside of any notion of “pure” tone to catch the ripples of feeling obviously present in the material, yet there are always moments where the jazz musician catches himself and brings the line back to center, to a sense of form and grace.
Just as feeling is the Douglas original “Going Somewhere With You”, which is thicker with tricky jazz harmony and syncopation. But it shares with the other material a plaintive melody that develops with care toward emotion. Here, the trumpet is up on top of the line, with Irabagon acting as a harmonic shadow. It’s notable that the short trumpet solo flows so wholly out of the melody that it seems to have been composed. When Irabagon takes over, his statement is more obtuse—but genuinely original. (It’s worth noting that Irabagon is developing into one of those players who, despite having an essentially mainstream approach to jazz, has a vocabulary so singular and original that he can be identified almost immediately, hard to mistake for, say, Chris Potter. Amen.) The other instrumental original, “Middle March”, was written shortly after Paul Motian’s death, and it works as a tribute to the great composer and drummer, sharing with his canon a gorgeously shaped melody that works without the feeling of a set tempo.
The last original tune here is “Living Streams”, which uses as its source a traditional Scottish hymn. O’Donovan sings plainly with Mitchell’s piano (in a single-line counterpoint) and Douglas—releasing the quintet to play a similar chamber passage that uses each voice independently. As vocal sections alternate with instrumental sections, Douglas pulls off a most unusual fusion of folk traditionalism, “classical” written composition, and freely improvised, aharmonic dissonance. This tune—so different and unique as to have almost no precedent that I’ve ever heard—is utterly original without seeming to violate any rules or clash with expectations.
That is, “Living Streams” is a wholly singular artistic achievement. And that is true for all of Be Still, in fact. Like all the best music, all the best art, it seems to come simultaneously from the history before it and the world around it, yet it also stands as an act of pure imagination that could only have come from the artist himself.
With Be Still, Dave Douglas seems to be standing both smack in the middle of American art—jazz, sure, but so much else as well—and slightly apart from it. He’s seeing connections and beauty where others might not. He’s making something that is mysterious but also ought to touch any listener who dares beyond the Top 40. It’s a great, great record.
You’ll spin it like you need it, and you do.