Music

Dave Douglas and Uri Caine: Present Joys

Frequent collaborators (trumpet and piano) make their first duet album, interpreting the “shape-note singing” tradition. Simple, different, delightful.


Dave Douglas and Uri Caine

Present Joys

Label: Greenleaf
US Release Date: 2014-07-24
UK Release Date: 2014-08-25
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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.

8

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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