The most moving music of 2012 for me has surely been the collection Be Still, by trumpeter Dave Douglas. A serene and shimmering marriage between jazz and devotional hymns, Be Still was inspired by the death of Douglas’s mother—and it extinguished any notion that jazz is all cerebellum and no heart.
That this great work should come from Douglas in 2012 is hardly a surprise. Douglas has been a critical voice—and recently a critical mentor to younger players—in jazz for 20 years. And that it should mean that much to me is also not surprise. Douglas and I grew up in the place and time as I did, and—as he reflects the loss of his parents in his music—has many of my own concerns in his heart.
His music is personal. Putting aside Be Still, that may seem odd, as he is mainly a voice in today’s post-modern jazz, a realm of much abstraction not usually given to autobiography or confession. But Douglas’s work is personal because its incredible range and diversity, taken as a whole, is a portrait of a brilliant and complete man.
The last year shows this with perfect clarity. You can forget the broad swath of his work from previous years: his music for silent movie soundtracks, his use of turntables and electronics, his immersion in Balkan music and his album of Joni Mitchell covers. Douglas’s released music in the last 12 months is enough to suggest that he is the most interesting and heartfelt jazz musician in recent times.
Greenleaf Records and “The Portable Series”
Since 2005, Douglas has been releasing his music—and increasingly that of others—on his own label, Greenleaf Music. Not that Douglas had previously seemed constrained in his artistic choices, but now he truly does what he wants when he wants. And so the full breadth of his artistic identity flies free.
At the end of 2011, Greenleaf made available three different records by Douglas reflecting three different angles on his remarkable trumpet voice. Called “The Portable Series”, these recordings were initially available by download only but were eventually pressed onto compact disc by demand. Each one, remarkable. Together, a revelation.
Volume One: Rare Metals (Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy)
Douglas has been running this mini-modern-brass band for seven years, since he conjured it during the Festival of New Trumpet Music (which, of course, Douglas also dreamed up and directs). It’s not a traditional outfit exactly, though it obviously celebrates a certain tradition, what with its instrumentation of trumpet, trombone, French horn, tuba, and drums. But the band’s name is a call-back to the late Lester Bowie’s madly wonderful post-modern “Brass Fantasy” band, and the spirit is similar: raggedy and slick, old and new, free and fun, all at once.
This newest recording from the band is my favorite. It’s full of play. For example, “Lush Life” is not the song you expect a brass band to cover, but here it is, re-molded and re-shuffled in various ways, almost entirely new in fact. Douglas has taken just a few important and identifiable parts of the tune and fiddled them into something whimsically fresh. “My Old Sign” comes off as a kind of concerto for Douglas’s trumpet, setting it atop the rest of the band for most of the melody statement before giving way to improvised solos by Vincent Chancey and Luis Bonilla. “Town Hall” is even more fun, beginning with an old-fashioned fanfare of a sort, which quickly gives way to a hip little groove figure.
All of Brass Ecstacy’s music is pliant and full of edges. Nasheet Waits accompanies the horns on drums with a delightful looseness. It almost seems as if the group were playing all this music on a first take, reveling in the sense of adventure. And maybe that’s the truth that Douglas weaves into the compositions and arrangements themselves. Everything sounds like it was born yesterday.
Volume Two: Orange Afternoons (Dave Douglas, Ravi Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Linda Oh, Marcus Gilmore)
This quintet is not Douglas’s regular five-piece, exactly. Instead, this 2011 one-off studio group is a meeting of semi-giants. Vijay Iyer has certainly been making some of the most incredible and original jazz of the last few years, and Ravi Coltrane is finally a force who can’t be denied. Here, these two up-and-comers meet Douglas on six of his originals.
The balance is perfect. Iyer turns his accompanying figures into compositions of their own. And when Coltrane enters the conversation at the very end of Douglas’s solo on “The Gulf”, he seems to be swarming all over the leader, covering one idiosyncratic statement with another just as original. The spirit here is, plainly: let’s let ourselves go.
Everything about these six tunes weighs sophistication against feeling. Like the Miles Davis Quintet of the ’60s, this band seems capable of making any performance into a daring exploration, so it’s just find that Douglas provides the band with pretty themes to start with. “Valori Bollati” is a dancing tune in waltz time that let’s Coltrane play the melody brightly while Douglas works a lower harmony. As soon as the leader’s solo begins, Iyer breaks up the feeling of swing and Oh and Royston respond by suspending their motion—creating suspense. Each short solo flirts with a similar motion of interruption and resumption. Yet the feeling of momentum keeps rolling.
Or there is the brooding sound of Douglas’s muted horn on the title track, moving in parallel with Iyer or the tenor saxophone, tracing a long-form melody that doesn’t seem to repeat, even as it sustains interest. Most remarkable here is Iyer’s solo: craggy at first and them gradually becoming more beautiful as the pianist’s two hands start to work into a cascade of ideas. This is the kind of jazz that too-often seems “by the numbers”, a take on the post-bop freedom of Wayne Shorter and Andrew Hill, but written and delivered in a manner that can be called heartfelt.
Volume Three: Bad Mango (Dave Douglas with So Percussion)
This collaboration between Douglas and a new music quartet is more playful and cheeky than heartfelt. Douglas is the composer here, but the various drums, marimbas, keyboards, and other clanking things of So Percussion cannot be denied. This record is a set of blamming-whirring monkey bars, a set of junkyard grooves that sometimes insinuate rather than rock.
What fun Douglas is having here! Even on a relatively avant-garde workout like “Nome”, you sense that the band is taking joy in just hearing how nutty may be the pitter-patter of sounds it is spreading across the room. More often, the atmosphere is clattering with life. “One More News” and “Bad Mango” both trade in funked-out syncopations that never get stale form repetition. “Witness” gets started on with droning chords on harmonium, but soon enough it is off into a sinuous groove that feels like a sneaky heartbeat on caffeine.
So Percussion uses marimba and organ, synthesizer and various found instruments as much as it does the conventional. Yet these pieces often have a carefully notated feeling to them. “Spider” seems random until the trumpet comes in, pulling together the rest of the band with melody. Soon enough, everything seems carefully planned and orchestrated. Douglas is not doing much improvising here, as the composition unfolds with care.
The thrill of this third piece of “The Portable Series” is simply in hearing a new dimension to a jazz player. He is fully in league with these denizens of the downtown, these smarty-pants advocates of weirdness. And, in fact, it is Douglas who graces them with soul here—he is the player who embodies beautiful tone and who can smear a blue note over the clatter. On “Time Leveler”, for example, Douglas enters two minutes into the proceedings, buzzing on his Harmon mute and letting his tone vary from moment to moment as the spirit moves him.
And it often does, I assure you.
Donny McCaslin, Casting for Gravity
What makes Douglas particularly interesting this year, however, goes beyond his own music. In his stewardship of Greenleaf records and in his work as an increasingly mature bandleader, Douglas is starting to have an increasingly powerful influence on the work of other key voices in jazz.
Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin isn’t all that young, but it was his role in Douglas’s quintet (which he joined in 2006) that brought him more powerful attention. He has now released two distinctive recordings on Greenleaf, each one combining two (somewhat) competing spirits. McCaslin played for several years in the fusion band Steps Ahead, in which he replaced the late Michael Brecker—and his sound and his band have Brecker’s potent, metallic sheen. Yet Casting for Gravity also has an adventurous approach we might associate with Douglas.
McCaslin’s band has electric power without fusion silliness. Mark Guiliana is the drummer, Tim Lefebvre is on electric bass, and a very versatile keyboard player arrives in the form of Jason Lindner. Lindner has played with a huge swath of folks, from James Moody to Meshell Ndegeocello, and his work here that kind of sweep: hip hop and swing, a bit of noise and a lot of rhythm. On “Says Who”, for example, Lindner starts with synth washes that smooth out the sound of McCaslin’s herky-jerky tune, but then he switches over to a grating sound that buzzes and gnarls like Joe Zawinul with indigestion. Lindner keeps the album on its toes.
The rhythm section of Guiliana and Lefebvre is splendid. They set it up as fusion the way it ought to be: grooving and strong and as pumped as popular music but with a continual sense that this music is slippery and shifting like jazz. So “Losing Track of Daytime” is soulful, with the bassline as rubbery as any Stevie Wonder track, “Tension” suggests a slice of progressive rock as devilishly precise any Rush track, and “Henry” sets a long Fender Rhodes solo against a syncopated drum part that lets the bass percolate.
McCaslin himself does a few things beautifully. He is not the protean improviser that, say, Sonny Rollins or Chris Potter is, but he plays with the band as well as any horn. On so many tunes, his playing simply disappears into the band, particularly when he begins playing with rhythmic abandon—as if the man were a drummer with a reed. On “Praia Grande”, McCaslin flies into his upper register and starts hitting his saxophonic snare—and it sounds great. On the end of “Says Who”, repeated notes and intervals from McCaslin essentially accompany a drum/bass solo. McCaslin is part of the rhythm section.
Linda Oh, Initial Here
On Initial Here (also on Greenleaf), the leader is most decidedly part of the rhythm section. Linda Oh is Douglas’s most recent bass player, another young female bassist who plays both acoustic and electric with equal aplomb. Oh’s story is irresistible: she was born in Malaysia to Chinese parents, raised in Perth, Western Australia, and now lives in New York. Like McCaslin, she is product of great US music schools, but her playing never sounds like a carbon copy.
Dig her version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Something’s Coming”. It starts in burbling abstraction, with a mass of free playing that suddenly picks up a groove until the familiar melody appears, if only for a moment. As Oh starts walking her acoustic bass (and: fast), the band coalesces even more, but the tune is always implied and never stated with perfect clarity. Fabian Almazan’s piano solo actually focuses the band, with the precise swing of Rudy Royston’s drums coming together. Oh then trades with Royston for a long stretch before the melody returns, this time resolving into a delicate impressionistic rendition. There is not one element of this performance that might have been predicted.
“No. 1 Hit” is sunnier, with Almazon moving over to Fender Rhodes while Oh stays acoustic. Royston is given latitude to play all over the place, but it’s a fun workout rather than anything to dark. “Deeper Than Happy” moves her over to electric bass, however, with Dayna Stephens’ tenor saxophone getting to run in unison with the leader or to split into counterpoint with the keyboard. It’s an eclectic collection in that way—“Desert Island Dream” finds Oh strumming her bass almost like it was a folk guitar and creating a wide open sound cushioned by sunny chords; “Little House” sets up a crazy, asymmetrical melody passed around from electric bass to horn to Rhodes; “Deeper Than Sad” moves in a long-toned minor mood across arpeggiated acoustic piano.
While this music is wholly distinct from what Douglas might make if he were on the date, the spirit of diversity and openness is apparent. And that is what Douglas has demonstrated this year and every year that he has been playing.
Douglas is just what the music needs. He is a big tent figure: someone with room on his label and in his bands for all kinds of players and all kinds of sounds. His Be Still may be the riveting jazz album of 2012, but that is just a small slice of Douglas’s musical world. His other bands, his side players, his record label—each one blossoms with different strengths, a diversity of beauty.
And that’s a good word for jazz today: diversity. It’s a music with many strong voices. Just like Dave Douglas.