It is clearly raising expectations too high to compare this eight-CD live documentation of the November 2015 appearance of the Dave Douglas Quartet (his second) at New York’s Jazz Standard to the Plugged Nickel recordings by Miles Davis’s second quintet from 1965. But barely.
Davis’ band—the one featuring pianist Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter on bass, drummer Tony Williams, and saxophonist Wayne Shorter—was in the middle of a brilliant run of recordings and was doing things with Davis’ music that seemed almost impossible: moving in and out of tempos, taking their improvisations effortlessly beyond bebop harmony without really cracking into complete dissonance, and pushing each other through something that sounded a whole lot like telepathy. The sidemen, a generation younger than the leader, were teaching the master how to move his music into the future. They had a few years of great playing still to go, but the seven sets recorded in Chicago stand as a model of the brilliance of small group modern jazz in 1965.
Fifty years later, Dave Douglas—another trumpet player who has been a stylistic chameleon even more changeable than Davis—has given his own brilliant quintet a similar treatment. The band featured tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston, also players a generation younger than the leader and bringing fiery energy to the proceedings. At the Plugged Nickel, the dynamic was exciting because Davis’s band seemed to be pushing him past his comfort zone, insisting on new levels of freedom and daring, and you can hear the master adjusting and catching up to his pupils. At the Jazz Standard, the level of daring is spread more evenly—Douglas has never been afraid to look forward—but there is a strong sense that each band member is motivating the others, stoking the fire, building momentum that is irresistible.
Davis’ band was playing a repertoire of older tunes from Davis’ book (“All of You”, “Stella by Starlight”, “So What”) that were being remade in a new language. Douglas’ quintet tackles a wider range of tunes. The 30 compositions played live over these four nights are mostly Douglas originals spanning several modern styles and supplemented by traditional or spiritual tunes that the band recorded on a recent themed recording, which tunes were always the property of this quintet. The challenge for this recording, then, is to demonstrate how the band—freed up in concert to stretch out—makes more of the material than the studio may have allowed.
And this is why Brazen Heart, Live at Jazz Standard is an overwhelming success. (Had I reviewed it before deadlines for various “best of 2018” lists, it would have easily been near or at the top.)
These performances are thrilling in part because they combine looseness with breathtaking precision. It is one of jazz’s best parlor tricks, of course, that its spontaneity is built on exacting structure executed by musicians masterful at both the play and the discipline. This quintet achieves this balance with drama and contrast. For example, during Friday’s early set, Douglas’ original “Little Feet” begins with a trumpet-only statement of the main motif that moves into an ambling improvisation for trumpet and the piano trio that is punctuated by the motif, loosely set out. Over time, Douglas’s trumpet, Royston’s drums, and Oh’s bass all attack a signature rhythmic figure, but it is casually tossed in. Then a sing-songy line from Douglas that sounds spontaneously discovered is echoed by Irabagon’s tenor sax and then doubled, gaining momentum as the song’s second theme, combined with a precise rhythmic attack. It’s not clear whether this flow of development was planned or discovered in the moment, but the result is the art of structure and improvisation as one gorgeous thing.
Sticking to that rendition of “Little Feet”, the band demonstrates another strength. As with the best of the new jazz, the band avoids each solo seeming to have the same structure or feeling. Douglas goes first, developing his variations over an impressionistic, shifting accompaniment which leads to a dynamic collective improvisation with traded phrases and intricate interplay between trumpet and saxophone. This gives way to Iragagon’s tenor solo, which is much more supercharged than the first improvisation, starting at a level of aggressive rhythmic attack that had already been established, then getting freer. Royston’s drums and the saxophone go at each other delightfully, and the saxophone strays significantly from the tune’s harmonies, growing more abstract. Mitchell’s piano solo is another thing altogether, something more harmonically open and transparent, allowing the whole rhythm section to float on top of the pulse rather than wind themselves around it. That one track, by itself, is a thesis on how jazz is played today, at its best.
The quintet is happy to swing its ass off for the audience, in case you’re wondering if all the trickery is too much. “Garden State” from the late set on Saturday night simply flies, uptempo, with the Oh/Royston rhythm team flipping easily from speedy swing to a semi-Latin groove, then back again but fast. Everyone solos in a fairly traditional format. The very next tune, however, has a Monk-ish funk to it. “Miracle Gro” doesn’t bother starting with its theme, and the leader grooves over an off-kilter hip sway from the rhythm section, a reasonably danceable groove that bobs and pops and delights for six minutes before the horns join together for the theme. Irabagon’s solo begins over a mysterious, ambiguous new feeling, and it develops into something fresh and wildly intense: Mitchell playing heavy chords, Oh busy underneath in throbbing forward motion, all capped by a churning pattern from Royston’s drums that eventually brings it all together into a mad push that merges back into mid-tempo funk once Douglas reintroduces the theme. It all seems unplanned, or at least unplanned in its particulars. The third “solo” isn’t really one at all but a very quiet group interaction with horn interjections, piano filigree, bass improvisation, and a collective restraint that also defies expectations.
This is also band that does “pretty” brilliantly. “Barbara Allen” from the first Thursday set stuns with a lovely charm. The traditional theme is given an arrangement that begins for just trumpet, tenor, and piano, with harmonic tensions that move in a manner that hints at both classical and folk music. As the bass enters, the arrangement grows more harmonically modern with jazz dissonance as the players begin to improvise. Mitchell’s harmonies challenge and prod his bandmates outside the song’s pure beauty, but the result is just an increase in how gorgeous the tune is, as the crystalline melody keeps returning against a darker background. (It is notable that the Saturday night version of “Barbara Allen” gets more frantic in a collective improvisation—these performances are different and free. You might prefer one to the other.) Equally breathtaking is Friday’s performance of “Be Still My Soul”. It’s a meditative melody, and in turn Douglas, Irabagon, and Mitchell each double down on making the most of its emotional power. Douglas swoops up into some aspirational tones, the saxophone will take a single, perfect note and worry it across the harmonies as they change, and the piano rains down cascades of irregular scales that ripple against your sense of joy. It’s wow from start to finish.
It is almost impossible to identify one bandmate as the standout, the rising star, the key ingredient—another sure sign that this quintet was one for the ages. Irabagon’s expressive ability in terms of pure sound is incredible. He is ripe and rowdy, throaty and weird, burnished, loud, tender all at the right moments. But he is also perfectly matched with Douglas’s more even sound. On the Friday night “Variable Current”, for example, they played the head (including its various in-between sections) in a gorgeously loose match, sometimes hitting a phrase with precise rhythmic accuracy, often veering off pitch by purposeful microtones or contrasting two notes an octave apart where one is played clean, and the other is strained. Douglas’s trumpet is more often the “straight man” in these situations, but he is never dull in his note choices or his sense of surprise.
Oh’s sound is as rich (and is captured fully by these live recordings), and she usually feels like a third melodic force in the arrangements. Douglas features her as an important soloist fairly often, for example on “One Morning”, where she plays a long unaccompanied solo that uses a powerful pedal point, double stops, and most importantly, a weighty melodic sense. Royston has every tool at his disposal: funk, swing, free playing, coloring—all in constant dialogue with the band. Even on a ballad like “This Is My Father’s World”, his small moment of revving up under Irabagon’s flight is essential and then essentially pulled back to a hip undercurrent to Oh’s solo.
Perhaps it is Matt Mitchell’s piano that is asked to do the widest range of work in the quintet. His is not the dominant voice, but he is a key piece in making the beautiful, traditional tunes shine with a modern but lovely sensibility while his clusters and dissonances often give the more “out” compositions their bite. For example, his role in the Friday “Middle March” is pivotal. Though his is not a featured solo—as his playing is integrated with work from the horns—it generates the harmonic language of the song, providing it with mystery, edge, and attitude. This continues beneath Irabagon’s expressive solo, and even as the performance winds down, he is still there defining each moment of it. At times during these sets, Mitchell is called on to be Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett or Cecil Taylor. That he weaves all those identities into himself says it all about his playing.
Dave Douglas tells us that there will be a new quintet soon, but he is a bandleader with so many varied projects that it’s hard to imagine him devoting the time to developing another band with the level of telepathy and sympathy of his Irabagon/Mitchell/Oh/Roston quintet. Listening to over eight hours of the band’s music is a joy and a cinch, demonstrating that this classic jazz instrumentation can tackle many forms and create many pleasures. When this band is hitting on all cylinders, with the two horn interwoven, Mitchell’s piano leaping and strumming and inventing, Oh down below and Royston kicking and stoking from all sides, it seems like it might be twice its size, a small orchestra or conversation, reverberation, and cross-currents. That Douglas constructed such an ingenious book for the band adds to its sense of breadth: in this music, we find groove, swing, plainsong, worship, ambivalence, clarity, joy, and heartbreak. You need a small orchestra to say all of that.
And, somehow, this quintet was a small orchestra, with Douglas’s compositions and arrangements matched to its strengths and range, its expressive possibilities. Brazen Heart, Live at Jazz Standard is a symphony for what a jazz group can be when it is truly powerful and alive. It is a masterpiece of the form, the long form. And it will sit next to Miles Davis’s Plugged Nickel recordings for decades to come.