The partnership between pianist Uri Caine and trumpeter Dave Douglas deserves special attention. Caine established a critical part of the sound of Douglas’s quintet in how he placed the Fender Rhodes electric piano into that band’s identity. And the pair recorded the unique and gorgeous duet album Present Joys in 2014, demonstrating how American “shape-note singing” could become the fodder for improvisation filtered through jazz. With Caine and Douglas, you are talking about empathy and daring between equals.
Devotion might be heard as a kind of sequel to Present Joys, but it adds a third equal to the mix in drummer Andrew Cyrille. Cyrille is a generation older than Douglas and Caine, with gigs that go back to Coleman Hawkins but also—famously—to Cecil Taylor. Cyrille can be pigeonholed as an “avant-garde” musician, but he is famously versatile, capable within the classic jazz tradition and of flying free beyond standard structures. At his age, you’d excuse some slowing down, but Cyrille has released two albums in the last few years on ECM, and his 2016 duets with saxophonist Bill McHenry were exuberant.
As a trio, Douglas/Caine/Cyrille are simply throwing down more joy. The absence of a bass player is no problem with Caine happily supplying his own bass lines and demonstrating that some freedom to wander whimsically as a pianist is a good thing. “Milosang” is built on Caine’s gospel piano styling, a funky thing that makes much of Keith Jarrett’s similar grooving sound leaden. Caine’s gospel piano is light and dancing, with his left hand slipping in bass notes that lurch and push things forward. Cyrille provides a snapping backbeat, but—again—an agile one that makes the enterprise feel like a spring (in your step) day. Caine’s playing is flush in blues licks and near-stride phrasing, and Douglas plays over the waves with a tart punch and puckish charm. The short portion of the written theme comes quietly toward the end of the performance, subverting our sense of how the music has to go, even as the five minutes fly by in joy.
Similarly, Caine handles the bottom capably on “False Allegiances”, with its mid-tempo tango bass line set off by Cyrille’s toms. Caine’s right hand and Douglas’s muted trumpet combine on a mysterious blues theme that takes a few twists and turns. “Francis of Anthony” also uses a loping bass figure in supporting a charming waltz that Douglas plays with his Harmon-mute in place. The first of these compositions brings out the umber and charcoal in the trio, whereas the latter tune has the breezy charm of a Vince Guaraldi recording. Caine’s solo has a dancing quality that he passes over to Douglas’s buzzing tone when it’s time for the trumpeter to improvise.
There is also a light playfulness at the core of “Rose and Thorn”, also set in a triple meter. The trio hops joyfully through the theme, with Cyrille, in particular, sounding like he is a child in a toy store, clinking and clonking on cymbals and a woodblock, like a drummer from the 1920s. Halfway through the performance, Douglas and Caine trade fours as Cyrille tap dances delightfully. You feel as though the joy can’t grow any more—and then the trio shines the spotlight directly on Cyrille, who takes it up a clever extra notch. “Curly” is also a tune with a bubbly rhythmic center, though this one is more modern, defying a clear sense of where “the one” is landing for long stretches. Douglas sits out this tune, and Cyrille and Caine play enthusiastically from a mood and tonality established by the piano. Though they return to the theme, gesturally, they also allow their duet to wander happily and creatively off course, particularly in a few floating sections that get more dissonant before the staccato part of the theme returns to grab your ear.
As much fun as Douglas, Caine, and Cyrille have on these lively performances, the heart of Devotion may be elsewhere. When the trio slows down, some deeper magic creeps in.
“Pacific’s” first theme is a slow two-chord vamp, a melancholy piece of music with Caine and Cyrille holding back from too much of a groove, just coloring and pulsing a slow heartbeat as Douglas mournfully etches in his lower register for most of the improvisation. In its second phase, the performance becomes a craggy rondo with each musician playing his own intersecting, restless line. It is an example of gravity contrasted with a leap into the air. “Prefontaine” sounds like a free improvisation that moves across moods, from contemplative to anxious. The whisper of trumpet and the high flutter of the piano with which it begins focus your listening, and then the band slowly transforms the music into an emotional storm, with Cyrille prodding and complementing, before the music returns to restfulness.
The title track, “Devotion”, comes from the shape-note Sacred Harp book that inspired Present Joys, but it is pushed into even greater life with Cyrille’s presence. It is a ballad too, in the sense that the mood is mostly serene, even as the tempo moves in and out of greater motion. It is the recording’s unquestioned highlight, however, for the immense feeling that it allows the musicians to access. There is a combination of open harmony and melodic purity in the musical form, and these jazz musicians are careful to play the music straight for the most part until they do not. In those moments, whether they are moments of swing-ish momentum, sudden dashes of dissonance in the melody, or chords made suddenly darker with the addition of some subtle tension, the music develops richness and complexity for a moment. Then, in what feels like a sudden burst of sunlight, the band releases that tension. The performance makes these transitions sound natural and miraculous.
This kind of interplay, the pulling of small strings between three master players, is all over Devotion in one way or another. Inside every performance, there are marvels that defy my ability to write about them. Uri Caine carries a history of piano styles within his work—from jazz but from well beyond it as well—that makes his solos mature and wise. You hear moments that crystallize what the instrument does at its best and express a human feeling to cry out, to laugh, to mourn, to speak. Andrew Cyrille can sound like Baby Dodds and Papa Joe Jones, like Philly Joe Jones and Ed Blackwell—but finally, all those strands add up to him, and him in the moment, playing with this group, playing for these tunes.
And Dave Douglas is now at the stage where his trumpet sound is immediately identifiable, even though he plays in so many different contexts and with such a range of musicians. His leadership of the label, Greenleaf, his promotion of other musicians on his podcast “A Noise from the Deep”, his teaching at the New School, and his channeling of politics into his music are all important. But when I hear that sound, I still think it is the most important thing about his work.
Devotion gives all three of these great musicians a platform from which to sing together. Amen.