Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas is one of the most industrious musicians in the world. He runs a label that is home to many creative musicians beside himself (Greenleaf), organizes a festival of trumpet music in New York every year, hosts a podcast with a wide array of musicians, teaches in the New School’s jazz studies program, and then there’s his music. Recently, Douglas has been recording with a wider array of musicians than any one regular group, seeming to reach out for partnership with younger players and fresh talent.
His latest also extends an effort that dates back in the trumpeter’s discography. It’s an original tribute to a jazz giant from the past, one who would seem to be a natural influence on Douglas but who, he confesses, he had “avoided” for many years. Dizzy Gillespie was, of course, a jazz giant: an architect of the new style in the 1940s, a pioneer in placing Afro-Cuban influences front and center in modern jazz, a musician unafraid to speak out about politics, a caring mentor to younger musicians, one of the first bandleaders to make a point of including women in his bands, and the first jazz musician to tour the world for the State Department. Confronting his legacy might just take some courage, yes.
For Dizzy Atmosphere: Dizzy Gillespie at Zero Atmosphere, Douglas put together a fresh band featuring one longtime colleague in drummer Joey Baron and three young phenoms on the New York scene. Guitarist Matt Stevens is almost 40 but still qualifies as fresh, playing with Esperanza Spalding, Teri Lyne Carrington, Walter Smith III, and many others across different creative genres. Stevens is a player of the generation who has “jazz school” skills and a healthy disregard for genre-oriented purism. Pianist Fabian Almazan, at 36, is similarly accomplished and wide-ranging, a composer and arranger with classical chops and a deep jazz resume, who has also pioneered his own, environmentally conscious label for creative music. Bassist Carmen Rothwell is a bit younger—a product of one of the rich high school programs in Seattle and then the University of Washington jazz program run by trumpeter Cuong Vu, where she studied with Luke Bergman.
Perhaps most interestingly, Douglas has added a second trumpet to this band. David Adewumi comes out of the New England Conservatory, the Julliard masters program in jazz, as well as Vijay Iyer’s program at Harvard and the Better Carter Jazz Ahead program. Last year he won the Carmine Caruso Competition half at DePaul. The two horns share the front line in most of the arrangements, with the younger player sounding fully confident and with his sound. Does it take two trumpet players truly to pay tribute to the technically and imaginatively gifted Gillespie? It would seem to be so.
Part of the fun in this set comes from hearing two approaches to Gillespie’s legacy. Douglas reinterprets two of Dizzy’s tunes and has written seven new compositions meant to reflect the master’s sensibility. “Manteca” is an Afro-Cuban classic co-composed with Gil Fuller and Chano Pozo. Douglas assigns each player a slightly different rhythm on the theme, turning the sextet into a Cuban percussion section, even the two trumpets playing off each other as they poke at the theme. Stevens gets the first solo over a suddenly driving swing feeling as the horns play a big-band-ish ensemble behind him. The leader and his younger brass protege share the second solo section, trading short phrases, chasing each other back and forth as the band moves from swing to Latin groove.
“Pickin’ the Cabbage” is a lesser-known Gillespie theme, his first ever to be recorded during his time with Cab Calloway. Douglas uses this scrappy riff tune to let the ensemble play like a scrappy jump band, with the trumpets playing smeared blues lines, growled shouts, and also lithe and fleet phrases that sound like Gillespie in his early days. Baron takes a lovely, old-timey solo that reminds you why drummers have always had a streak of entertainer in them, but the best moments are reserved for piano and guitar. Almazan plays most of his solo against a set of stop-phrases that find him defying gravity and generating suspense, and then Stevens plays stinging modern guitar over pure swing for a quick 32 bars.
The seven remaining tracks sound distinctly like they come from the more modern, harmonically shaded pen of Dave Douglas, but it is interesting to hear how they relate back the Gillespie material. The opening track, “Mondrian”, is full of more ambiguous chord patterns, but it still contains the kind of stop-time sections that we hear in Almazan’s “Cabbage” solo. The tension of the rhythms is very Gillespie. The leader’s solo is identifiably that of Dave Douglas—in tone and sonority—but it sounds like Douglas is thinking in more Gillespie-an ways, particularly as he leaps across wider intervals. The Wayne Shorter-esque harmonized horn melody pops, but Douglas’s arrangement places Stevens’ guitar prominent in the role of the rhythm section, prodding things forward. Almazan gets the lead-off solo, demonstrating how he falls in the lineage of Herbie Hancock while still sounding like a new voice.
The hard-hitting, high-wire side of Gillespie’s art is also reflected on “Subterfuge”, with Baron swinging the band mightily even as the sense of time moves in and out of straight swing. Rothwell is a critical presence on this track, tying the different elements into a natural sense of time as she walks, plays stop-time, moves between ballad phrasing and four-notes-per-measure.
Quieter, slower playing is the critical part of most of the other music on Dizzy Atmosphere. These settings are ideal for allowing Douglas and Adewumi to play in close sonic combination, both during the ensembles and during improvisation. “See Me Now” is a lovely modern ballad feature for Douglas and Adewumi, both playing Harmon-muted trumpet, one above the other in choral style. Stevens is particularly effective here in using washes of sustained electric guitar sound, not chords but aching cirrus clouds of sound that never interfere with Almazan’s atmospheric but more melodic accompaniment.
“Pacific” is the set’s longest track, a floating ballad that makes the most intriguing and effective use of the two trumpets. The arrangement places them in close harmonies that are both parallel and contrapuntal at different times, often rubbing closely against each other such that the listener experiences an almost magical sense of intentional distortion. The effect is the feeling that there are three or four trumpet voices at once, as the guitar and piano also phase up against the brass sounds. Stevens plays a solo at the very end, without a return of the theme, that acts as a reflection of the whole, reiterated for main the rhythm section.
Both “Cadillac” and “Con Almazan” begin as ballads and then take journeys. The former amounts to a single pedal point bass note, emphasized by Almazan’s left hand, over which the band plays a lovely chiming figure as soloists tumble and dart. The flashes of harmonic change are like quick visions or illusions—until Stevens’ solo opens up the band into a funk groove over two chords. From extreme simplicity to simplicity, perhaps, except that the polyrhythms quickly pile up and move us as the performance unfolds. “Con Almazan” (of course, a play on the Gillespie tune “Con Alma”) slowly unfurls rhythmically—beginning as a nearly static ballad, then moving into a written them over a deliberate quarter note feel, and eventually becoming rhythmically complex as the two trumpet players play a collective improvisation that shows how the best musicians always listen with care as much as they play with passion. Stevens’ solo is a craggy, modern thing, developing in cells or fragments. The namesake of the tune plays a wild conceptual solo that develops a brilliant unity around a rising pattern to which it returns several times.
Listening to the whole of this recital is a continuous reminder of how collaborative this art form remains in the new century. Though Dave Douglas is the composer and arranger and, by all reports, a leader who runs a tight ship, the critical voices on so many of these recordings are the younger players. Douglas constructed the band so that its most distinctive elements—the elements that are unlike the typical hard bop quintet/sextet format—are in the hands of proteges like Stevens and Adewumi. Jazz preparation and education being what it is today, the younger musicians easily carry the weight Douglas assigns them.
It seems appropriate that
Dizzy Atmosphere closes on a note of worship—which is how most trumpet players view Gillespie. “We Pray” is a waltz-time ballad that opens up plenty of space for each member of the band to make a small contribution. It’s the one track that does not attempt to get sonic to launch anything into the stratosphere. There is a wonderful humility to it that may just pay tribute to Dizzy Gillespie better than anything tricky or virtuosic. Douglas doesn’t try to dominate this recording with his attempts to ape a legend or to overshadow his band.
Instead, the tribute sounds highly democratic. Which makes sense, given that Dizzy Gillespie ran a pseudo-serious campaign for President of the United States in 1964. And which makes 2020 the perfect year to pay tribute to a very serious musician.
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