Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, remote recording quickly became the norm for musicians who were part of larger ensembles. This approach is likely more conducive to certain genres of music than others. If you start with drums and percussion and your music carries on in straight 4/4 time and has a fairly straightforward arrangement, assembling the best takes from different area codes shouldn’t pose that much of a challenge. But how on earth did the Dave Douglas Quintet, a contemporary jazz combo that plays around with outstretched melodies, ebbing tempos, and rubbery arrangements, remotely make two albums worth of material? What’s more, how did they manage to finish the project when the trumpet was the first track to be recorded?
There is a small but important backstory to Douglas’ Songs of Ascent project. Earlier in 2022, the trumpeter/composer/bandleader released a stunning tribute to the Ghent Altarpiece, Secular Psalms, an album that moved Douglas to take an even more introspective route for his next round of compositions. For Songs of Ascent, Douglas turned to, well, the 15 Psalms in the bible titled Songs of Ascent. In his compositional zealousness, Douglas wound up writing 16 pieces to commemorate the 15 Psalms.
The two albums, Songs of Ascent Book 1: Degrees and Songs of Ascent Book 2: Steps, were released simultaneously, though Book 1 is the only one readily available to everyone. Book 2 is up for grabs to anyone who purchases a subscription to Douglas’ Greenleaf Music label. Also, thanks to COVID-19, working musicians are looking to different avenues to keep their operations going. Whether you look at this as a double album, two companion albums, or a mainline album with a bonus disc, you’re still in for a treat with 16 brand-new originals spanning nearly 90 minutes. And no, it’s not all the same.
Book 1: Degrees and Book 2: Steps aren’t neatly cleaved into two completely different identities, but they have their own characteristics. Degrees is definitely the more Ornette Coleman-inspired body of work with bright timbres and challenging harmonies. Steps may have some of that here and there, but there is also a subtlety at work, a blue component to the music that matches the album cover’s color scheme. Here, you hear klezmer influences from Douglas’s time in John Zorn’s Masada, as well as a few nods to Miles Davis‘ Kind of Blue period. Steps will still have moments of surprise, and Degrees may tone things down by looking inward from time to time, but the two releases complement one another quite well.
Book 1: Degrees begins with three musical slaps to the face – “Never Let Me Go”, “Deceitful Tongues”, and “Lift Up My Eyes”. Even though they’re not in the same room playing simultaneously, it sounds like Douglas, reedist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Ruby Royston are firing on all cylinders together. If anyone has to work to keep up, it’s the listener. The appropriately named “Peace Within Your Walls” applies the brakes somewhat, taking a relatively tamer version of Douglas’ hard bop down to hushed tones and abstract soloing passages.
“Enthroned” straddles the two worlds presented within the first four tracks but manages to create a simmering beauty to call its own. “Mouths Full of Joy”, not unlike “Lift Up My Eyes”, contains one of those melodic figures that just stretches on and out, teasing you into thinking there’s a resolution coming when really there’s just more tension. A summation of Degrees it can be, but a bridge to Steps certainly isn’t.
Book 2: Steps begins with the blue and slinky “Quiver”, giving Irabagon a chance to solo like a snake charmer while Mitchell, May Han Oh, and Royston stir together a sultry atmosphere. “Grass on the Roof”, a distant cousin to “Quiver”, is strung together from the slightest of cha-cha beats and countermelodies from Douglas and Irabagon, creating something that sounds like it’s just on the verge of swinging. “A Weaned Child” has the hallmarks of a sad and solitary little tune, but the hard-popping “Let Your Ears Be Attentive” and the Bird & Diz-inspired “Make a Horn Grow” keep Steps from being a little too relaxed overall, though “Lift Up Your Hands” does make for a convincing spiritual.
For a while, Dave Douglas had one of the year’s finest jazz releases under his belt. Now he has three. This might surprise even his fans. The bandleader has long been prolific, but rarely three-albums-in-one-year prolific. It’s almost a little unfortunate that Songs of Ascent Book 2: Steps is such an exclusive item because, of the two albums here, it is the more accessible one. That doesn’t make it the better one. Determining which one is better is a frustrating exercise in hair-splitting. Taking both as bold new statements in modern jazz, they are soulful and thrilling.