Dave Douglas 2024
Photo: Geoff Countryman / Fully Altered Media

Dave Douglas Creates a Magic Encounter on ‘Gifts’

Dave Douglas’ recent jazz work has been highlighted by projects that dare him to write new music for novel musical encounters. Gifts is a spectacular success.

Dave Douglas
Greenleaf Music
12 April 2024

The prolific trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas craves interesting collaborative creativity. Though he has led many working bands that lasted for years, his recent work has been highlighted by projects that dare him to write new music for novel musical encounters.

Gifts is a spectacular success. Douglas chose tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis as his partner in the front line on most of the tracks, putting the leader’s tart but tender trumpet in conversation with an improviser whose authority and flexibility seem to be everywhere in 2024. Given that Douglas has been paired with both Joe Lovano and Jon Irabagon in recent years, you can be sure that a strong presence like Lewis makes Gifts a promising release.

The rhythm section is more surprising: guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang of the experimental post-rock band Son Lux (among other projects). The truth about this pair can’t be reduced to one band or one sound — they may be relatively young musicians who didn’t train in “jazz”, but their sound involves powerful groove, open flexibility, conversation, and imagination. The quartet doesn’t include a bassist, but Bhatia and Chang seem bound together in a rubbery agreement about how they can keep the music turning and surging, whether it is quiet or loud, slow or fast. That is “jazz” enough for me.

The other novelty element of Gifts is that Douglas has programmed six impressionistic original tunes around four rearrangements of tunes by Billy Strayhorn. That implies some confidence in the quality of the originals, and it is well-placed.

Douglas’ themes for this quartet are intimate and irresistible. “Kind of Teal” is a blues-drenched midtempo melody that could have been on a greasy 1960s jazz-funk date (or, dare I say, a certain 1959 Miles Davis album?), but having it nudged to life by guitar and drums adds a different kind of intrigue or danger to the track. Chang keeps the feeling light and floating with occasional stabs of excitement. Bhatia alternates between a light blues-rock guitar pattern and chiming jazz voicings that would sound cool on a Bill Frisell album.

“Seven Years Ago” is held aloft by a rolling pattern from Chang and Bhatia, setting things up with his lowest strings, the horns intoning a melody that begins with sorrow and takes small turns to hope. When the improvising starts, the horns intertwine as the set tempo opens up, and Lewis blows over a free section. More conversation sets up Douglas for a statement over a quietly lurching guitar pattern that is so perfect that it sounds composed. The third section is given to expressionist guitar sounds that briefly flood the performance with wonder before the arrangement comes home again.

Douglas’ title track, “Gifts”, opens the record in a mist of electronics and balladry, with Lewis providing a featured solo that dances up in the clouds with Bhatia’s chorus-heavy guitar. Similarly dreamy is “Third Dream”, in which Douglas states a simple melody alone with a buzzing Harmon mute sound. “Small Bar” feeds into the strengths of the rhythm section, which pokes and prods at first before beginning to lay in thick slabs of electric guitar fuzz and touches of blues cry. Douglas’ open horn goes toe-to-toe with the big axe when it’s loud, leading it into a pointillistic swing at other times.

The Strayhorn songs fit into Gifts‘ center because the ensemble reimagine them as modern groove songs that are strong on mood. The most famous, “Take the A Train”, gets a hip-swaying backbeat and a melodic reinvention. It is recognizably “A Train” but different. Bhatia plays a push-pull rhythm guitar figure under the theme, after which he is given an octave-style figure that acts as a hip solo. The horn solos are taken together in four-bar chunks alternating with Chang’s drum breaks until those three musicians break out together for a circus act of juggling musical balls. It is wow-inducing.

“Day Dream” also gets a new-century groove update, with Chang playing a busily syncopated pattern over which Bhatia places a one-note ostinato. Douglas plays the memorable “A” theme, and then the trio suspends the groove for the bridge. “Rain Check” is also just the trio, with Bhatia and Chang playing a set part that makes the familiar melody sound like it is working across a polyrhythm. The leader solos conversationally over a funk pattern on one chord before, deliciously, the guitar and trumpet play a written unison line.

The best of the four Strayhorn treatments may be “Blood Count”, which the trio creates as a dreamscape. The harmonies are lovingly etched by the guitar as Douglas plays the Strayhorn’s most astonishing melody. Chang’s tussled cymbals and rolling toms mix with electronics to complete the track as a feat of atmospheric noise, even as beautiful guitar chords continue.

We are in an era when dramatic transformations of jazz history are no longer news. Encounters that place improvisers from one tradition in conversation with other musical forms (check out Lewis’ playing with jazz/non-jazz guitarist Anthony Pirog and the Fugazi rhythm section on The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis) are staples. Still, Gifts is something special.

In this kind of intimate, in-the-moment music, the exact musicians in the room genuinely matter. I admire the machine that imagined and created Beyonce’s new album (or any of her albums, for that matter), but I feel certain that it would sound nearly identical if it were recorded in New York, Los Angeles, or Nashville (or, what with digital technology, all three) by any of the thousand super-pro studio musicians who know how to do that kind of thing.

The music on Gifts, however, is utterly specific to these four human beings, with their quirks, strengths, and impulses in the moment, who were encountering each other for the first time on this date. Rafiq Bhatia plays like himself, and his guitar sound and approach alters Dave Douglas’ trumpet as they dance — the same with Lewis and Chang — and the group become a living thing, and one even more marvelous and magical as they transform the Strayhorn music that was imagined 75 or 80 years ago.

Gifts all around, and a gift for our ears, not to mention our souls.

RATING 8 / 10