Since I enjoy listening to forward-thinking musicians of the NYC jazz scene and have discussed a quite few of them already, it’s perhaps inevitable that I was going to touch on trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas. The introduction of a new Douglas CD gives me the perfect excuse to do that.
To adequately describe Dave Douglas’ music up to now and the broad, eclectic range he’s covered already would be too much to fit into a review for one of his albums; April 15 brought his 27th proper release in only a 15 year span. He has been both extremely productive and consistent, all the while changing up styles. As All Music Guide’s Thom Jurek so aptly put it, Douglas is “a man whose talent and vision are perfectly balanced.”
Douglas’ trumpet has a timbre similar to Lester Bowie and a technique that matches Wynton Marsalis’. His no-nonsense, natural style is wholly his own, though.
While every Douglas release deserves attention from jazz fans, Moonshine is one I’ve been anticipating more eagerly than usual. That is because it’s the proper follow-up to Keystone. That 2005 recording was ambitious among a discography bristling with ambition. As Bill Frisell had previously done with early film star Buster Keaton, Douglas constructed some music inspired by the tragic career of fellow Hollywood actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.
Instead of looking back musically, though, Douglas used this backdrop to create some forward-sounding jazz. Along with a customary horn section manned by him and saxophonist Marcus Strickland, he employed a fusion-oriented rhythm section of Gene Lake on drums, Brad Lake on bass, and Jaime Saft on a Wurlitzer. To top off, a DJ — DJ Olive — manned the turntables and some atmospheric effects were later added by our friend David Torn.
Now, this has hardly been the first time Douglas has blended high-tech with acoustic jazz; he did this on 2003′s Freak In and sampling was all over his 1996 sprawling epic Sanctuary, to name two examples. Guided by Douglas’ clear vision and sharp focus, however, Keystone stands out as one of the more successful experiments in electro/acoustic jazz in recent years.
Two years later, Douglas went back to this group to record another cycle of songs inspired by Arbuckle and his films (“Moonshine” is the name of an unfinished 1917 comedy flick Arbuckle made with Keaton). With only Adam Benjamin replacing Saft, this band, now called Keystone, continues a great idea by Douglas and improves on it.
So, how did they improve on it?
First of all, Douglas and Co. began the task of laying down the basic tracks even without the thought that they were recording a record. Moonshine documents a performance of eight new Douglas compositions at the Bray Jazz Destival in Ireland. By the end of the performance, Douglas realized he had the spontaneity and energy he couldn’t capture in the studio. Fortunately, the concert was recorded in multi-track for the Irish National Radio.
That recording was subsequently sent to a studio in L.A., where refinements were made and intonations were added. The result is a record that scarcely retains any crowd or other extraneous sounds, but preserves all the on-the-fly improvisions and tight group interplay that only a live performance can bring.
Secondly, the technology used is being employed ever more intelligently than before. DJ Olive looms larger than before, by being utilized more prominently in providing percussion and being given more complex assignments. At the same time, Douglas is not one to use technology as a substitute for jazz. Rather, it is being used as a megaphone to amplify ideas that originate from more organic forms of music.
Finally, there’s a deeper commitment to the groove.
It’s funkier for sure, but at the same time, there’s no loss of a sense of the jazz tradition. It’s an example of what Andy Battaglia (The Onion) meant when he wrote “Dave Douglas courts tradition and progression with puzzling over the difference.” Sometimes the groove is aggressive and at other times it’s a chill-out. There’s still the interesting change-up’s in the middle of many of the cuts, but Keystone is making music that appeals at a gut level, not just at a cerebral level.
“Moonshine,” the song, is where the funk of today meets traditional jazz head on with spectacular results. The song gets underway with a nasty James Brown beat that Lake exploits to the hilt with some nifty cymbal work, while Benjamin’s gurgling electric piano and Jones accurate bass lines complete a deep, Head Hunters-caliber groove. Douglas’ and Strickland’s horn lines bring the song back to the bop tradition. That doesn’t keep Douglas from expertly playing it in the pocket on top of this groove during his solo break, though.
“Tough” is equally danceable, fading in with a steady, mid-tempo hip-hop beat and a variety of samples. But just before the listener becomes convinced the song is just a backdrop for breakdancing, Douglas and Strickland enter the fray with some darker, slightly dissonant lines that brilliantly bring together music of two generations.
Generations that might be two generations apart!
Of the softer numbers, “Flood Plane” is the most poignant. Without dropping any more of a hint than the song title and the sampled voice of the current president uttering the word “terrorist” over and over again as Douglas puts forth a beautifully mournful solo, the music speaks volumes about misaligned government priorities. Benjamin likewise shines on his warm but tense solo.
Elsewhere, the selections range from “Kitten,” a delightfully frantic cocktail of jazz and metal to the spooky “Married Life,” where Strickland plays an inspired sax during a passage while the rest of the band all but lays out. Strickland is again showcased on the brief “Scopes.” The evocative, heavily-modulated keyboard/sampled riff on “Dog Star” would have felt right at home on Bitches Brew.
Moonshine has been sold through Douglas’ own Greenleaf record label since late last year, and as of this week, it has become widely available. Contrary to what some might say, jazz is still very much evolving. With albums like these, Dave Douglas and his Keystone band are moving the genre forward in all the right ways.