The story is hardly original. A creative young musician with an original voice appears on the scene, apprentice to a master. He works in relative obscurity for a while, gathering a small group of intense fans. Then a major label comes knocking and, honestly, who can resist? Artistic compromise ensues, but record sales still aren’t enough for the suits, who drop the kid (except he’s not a kid anymore) after tainting him with a dreaded label: Sell-out.
Trumpeter Dave Douglas has lived much of that scenario, but with a remarkable difference. After being picked up by RCA in 2000, Douglas recorded a series of uncompromising discs in a handful of styles: mainstream jazz with a quintet and sextet, a tango/klezmer outfit featuring an accordion virtuoso, electronica-jazz fusion, and a political world music outfit featuring a recitation by Tom Waits. The soft-spoken Douglas — a white kid from the New Jersey suburbs who just happens to be one of the best jazz musicians of his generation — makes remarkable music no matter where he goes or who is paying (or not paying) him. Of course RCA let him go, but Douglas didn’t blink — he simply formed his own company (Greenleaf Records), put together a brand new band (one of more than a dozen working bands he maintains) dubbed “Nomad” and recorded a stunning new record that sounds like nothing else in jazz.
The music on Mountain Passages was composed for the 2003 Sound of the Dolomites music festival in Italy. The band had to hike up to 12,000 feet and play in the open air, so Douglas composed music for trumpet, reeds, cello, percussion, and tuba, incorporating local Landino music that, Douglas states in the liner notes, “seemed to veer between solemn devotional calmness and riotous drunken celebration.”
Now, I have no idea what Ladino music sounds like, but what Douglas has created here is a completely fresh jazz sound. Douglas gives his tuba player, the down-home but virtuosic Marcus Rojas, the job of grounding this band, while the front line of trumpet, Michael Moore’s clarinet or alto sax, and Peggy Lee’s cello dance, dart, and mourn in passages that are alternately parallel and counterpoint. Dylan van der Schyff uses his drum kit to color the music as much as to drive it forward, and so the result is a wide open sound — a splash of folksy world music covering a jazz sound that is equal parts New Orleans, cool, and avant-garde. Mountain Passages seems like the right title for this music. You can feel the air flowing through it — you can taste the clouds creeping down into the harmonies.
The disc opens with a theatrical waltz called “Summit Music”. The cello and percussion become a bed of soft pine needles on which trumpet and clarinet settle a lovely melody. When the tuba enters, the drums roll in an almost military way, allowing the tuba to adopt the cello’s line and lead to a collective improvisation that makes clear that this is jazz that eschews typical forms.
Tune after tune finds new ways to surprise you, even though the players never resort to eek-onk avant-garde playing. “Family of the Climber” lets Moore state the melody on alto, with trumpet, cello, and tuba harmonizing together in the place of a piano or guitar. The entire tune is rubato, with the whole band pausing between phrases like a single unaccompanied singer. Are you likely to see the alto/cello/drum free improv coming? No. But it makes perfect sense as it resolves back to the ensemble melody. “Gumshoe” sounds positively noir-ish, with the cello walking against swinging brushes and the melody sounding mutedly mysterious. “Twelve Degrees Proof” is a groove song in the style of a New Orleans parade band, and one that grooves so well that you don’t initially notice the complex time signature (measures of 4/4 and 6/4 alternating, at least at first). “North Point Memorial” makes cello, clarinet, and Harmon-muted trumpet sound like an entire Gil Evans block of sound, particularly as Rojas enters and expands the palette of this dirge even further.
But I worry that I’m making the pleasures of this record sound too fancy or too subtle. Its dramatic variations make it great fun to listen to, the same way that a ride through the Italian countryside tickles you. “Cannonball Run” finds your Alpha Romeo spilling forward in triple meter over blues changes, with rollicking good solos from Douglas, Moore on alto, then the two of them together — dueling, mirroring, and mimicking each other. Finish it with a crowd pleasing drum solo from van der Schyff for good measure. Or how about “Gnarly Schnapps”, a two-minute fanfare that sounds like Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill got together had a little too much Vita-meata-vegamin?
Dave Douglas’s trumpet work throughout this recording is puckish. He shouts and whispers, sure, but just as often he is sly or funny or even clownish. When Douglas is playing, the music seems like it could go in any direction at all, with the leader grinning broadly as he dares you to follow. His solo on “A Nasty Spill” has the quality of being hard-boppish like Kenny Dorham even as it takes a page from Lester Bowie’s post-modern playbook. On the same tune you learn the value of Michael Moore as a soloist. He plays well beyond the harmonies of the song, reminding you that he is a member-in-good-standing of Misha Mengelberg’s out-there ICP Orchestra, but then collaborates with Douglas on an a cappella duet that is astonishing for its harmonic beauty — all before the rhythm sections reenters to finish the song in a rollick.
Mountain Passages contains more individual pleasure than I can comfortably list here. Its last three tunes, however, are sequenced to take your breath away. “Off Major” references Thelonious Monk and “shave and a haircut” as it gives you a syncopated kick in the pants. Then “Bury Me Standing” (perhaps referring to Douglas’s father, who died as this music was being written) plays as a deeply felt ballad, a confession drenched in minor intervals. The last tune, “Encore: All is Forgiven”, sends you out feeling great — its peppy waltz feel under-girding a melody as bright as an August day on a mountaintop.
Dave Douglas made great music for RCA, but on his own imprint he seems to be even freer and more exultant — a guy with a trumpet and all of jazz history to draw on, not to mention every other kind of music under the white clouds that shade our listening. Mountain Passages makes you want to breath it all in.