In the mid-2000s trumpeter, Dave Douglas led a fantastic modern jazz quintet. Alas, they all went their separate ways around the turn of the decade. Douglas has since formed a new quintet, has flirted with electronics, and has assembled a brass ensemble, among other things. These projects have proved largely fruitful and show no signs of Douglas slowing down as either a composer or a bandleader. I still miss the unidentifiable thrill of his mid-’00s quintet.
It is, however, good to see Dave Douglas staying so musically active at this point in his career, which brings us to Little Giant Still Life. This album is a collaboration between Douglas and the all-brass ensemble The Westerlies. Fans of the trumpeter shouldn’t be too thrown since Douglas has worked with the aforementioned Brass Ecstasy and led a big band through older compositions on his 2009 big band release A Single Sky. Little Giant Still Life is just as good as any of those. All the proof you need is Douglas’s songs, the Westerlies’s musicianship, and Anwar Marshall’s unwavering percussive anchor.
The Westerlies, a quartet made of two trumpets and two trombones, already qualified themselves as writers and performers of Douglas-esque caliber on their self-titled sophomore album. I liked the album so much I almost caught the group at a local restaurant, one where you have to plunk down $40 for an entree and nearly half as much for an appetizer (I don’t think sitting and not ordering was an option). So having them combine forces with Dave Douglas seemed like a no-brainer. The rapid attack of each note in the melody on opener “Champion”, bouncing from one set of horns to the other and back again, could pass for an all-brass edition of Zooid. The opening eighth-note harmonies on “Arcade” are almost too screwy to work, and would certainly sound like botched work in the hands of amateurs. “Bunting”, a personal favorite of mine, sounds almost too excited to settle for a single theme. The action rises, falls, the notes plummet like rocks at the ends of phrases, and the tempo and meter become like silly putty — and this is the disc’s shortest track at 2:39.
Drummer Anwar Marshall’s contributions to Little Giant Still Life are so crucial that he gets co-billing on the album’s cover artwork. The Westerlies could certainly get away with recording entire albums without a drummer, and making Little Giant Still Life without one would not have sunk it. But the fact that Marshall can keep up with Douglas’ ever-shifting meters and downbeats help give these 12 songs the extra groove that doubles up as the album’s main sense of drive. And since Douglas and the Westerlies are so good at keeping their own time, Marshall is afforded the luxury of playing with the beat rather than just playing the beat. “Colonial Cubism” does the trick there, finding all six musicians in the driver’s seat.
If anyone ever had the notion in the past that Dave Douglas was close to exhausting himself, they have obviously been proven wrong many times over. Likewise, you can apply that same sense of momentum to the here and now. Is it is a collaboration with all the young blood that is sustaining him? Or does Douglas have access to an inexhaustible well of inspiration that will supply us with the goods for the remainder of his life? And should we even care if it’s one or the other or both? It’s tempting to apply a metaphor like “passing of the torch” to a young-meets-old album Little Giant Still Life, but I hear as more of a sharing of the flame.