Critics and fans of mainstream jazz and more experimental improvised music rarely agree on much but both laud trumpeter Dave Douglas. In the nine years since his first release as a leader, Parallel Worlds
on the Italian Soul Note label, the 39-year old Douglas has come to be widely regarded as one of the most gifted and accomplished musicians and composers of the current period.
For several years I've been a fan of John Zorn's Masada, a quartet that specializes in combing free jazz and klezmer, which Douglas is a member of as are Joey Baron and Greg Cohen. However, I hadn't heard any of his solo work till last year and Witness
. That disc featured Douglas leading mallet percussionist Bryan Carrott, tuba player Joe Daley, violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Drew Gress, lap topist Ikue Mori, trombonist Joshua Roseman, drummer Michael Sarin and reedist Chris Speed through a series of pieces that seem far more like moods than compositions. Mostly dark but with touches of brightness and humor, the music often seemed be simultaneously based on classical, folk and jazz.
Key to this was that the all star group, which was augmented by guest appearances by sampler Yuka Honda and vocalist Tom Waits, created pallets of sound that weren't best understood on a micro-level. They need to be analyzed as a whole or in terms of specific sections such as the string grouping of Feldman, Friedlander and Gress. At the same time, there are enough gestures to familiar sounds to make it accessible and nothing is antagonistic. Witness
can thus be studied and enjoyed on a variety of levels.
Despite the artistic excellence of Witness
, Douglas did not intended for the music to be understood solely as art. The trumpeter explains in the linear notes of being inspired to compose this music in 1999 during a train ride through Europe where he saw refugees from Serbia and read an article about how arms manufactures were benefiting from NATO's war on that country. "I decided to write music celebrating positive protest against the misuse of money and power. Each piece is inspired by and dedicated to artists and activists who have creatively challenged authority, sometimes endangering their own lives, but inspiring the rest of us to resist," he writes.
And with those dedications going out to the likes of Taslima Nasrin, the Ruckus Society and Edward Said, the message was as radical as the music.
While Douglas acknowledged in the linear notes that some listeners will only listen to the music as such, the political content was something that Douglas could not escape as Witness
appeared in stores just three weeks before September 11. Many write ups for a performances by a touring Witness group -a group consisting of Douglas, bassist Brad Jones, Mori, Wurlitzer player Jamie Saft, Sarin, Speed and Craig Taborn on the Fender Rhodes electric piano- deemed the disc being supported as being, in the words of Howard Reich writing in the October 7 Chicago Tribune
, "politically charged." Since this was, and remains, one of the most politicized periods in U.S. history, the real point of this label was to distinguish the contrarian message of Witness
from the ubiquitous calls for national unity against those deemed by the Bush administration to be "terrorists."
Douglas did not shy away from that message. During an October 11 concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, the same one Reich had been previewing, Douglas explained how he viewed the first plane crash into the World Trade Center from his apartment while scheduling a rehearsal with Jones on the phone. Speaking just four days after the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan -a campaign that Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker
has said did far more damage to Afghanistan than Al Quaeda- Douglas went on to explain that he didn't want people in any other part of the world to suffer as New Yorkers had. It wasn't exactly a forceful condemnation of U.S. policy but it arguably reflected the audience of hipsters of several generations, few of whom displayed flags on their clothing but even fewer of whom applauded Douglas' anti-war statement. Apparently the multi-layered and quite compelling music -even if it did come across as far more obtuse in concert- was enough. The Infinite
is the latest effort from Douglas and was recorded in December of last year with keyboardist Uri Caine, bassist James Genus, drummer Clarence Penn and reedist Chris Potter. The music is apolitical in theme and aesthetically more conservative than Witness
. Despite some stellar work from Caine on the Fender Rhodes and Douglas' usual multi-faceted playing, the material in terms of quality isn't one of Douglas' better efforts. Nonetheless The Infinite
features some very interesting elements.
For starters, the group performs Björk's "Unison," Mary J. Blige's "Crazy Games" and Rufus Wainwright's "Poses" without sounding cliched or resorting to a send up. (The latter device has its function but can quickly become tiring as shown by Ez Pour Spout's recent Don't Shave the Feeling
.) Instead Douglas has arranged the music so that it in terms of formula it comes across as far more similar to his originals than not.
More notable is the way in which ascending and descending banks of sound -usually from Douglas and Potter or Genus and Penn- repeatedly ease their way into the playing other musicians like a vehicle trying to get on a busy freeway. It goes smoothly enough so as to not take away from what else is going on but the music is disrupted just enough so careful listeners will notice the negotiation. This is very forward thinking composing and yet has been contextualized within these very pleasant pieces that could otherwise be interpreted as just standard jazz. Perhaps this is just my natural inclination towards music outside of the mainstream showing but the placement of this idea within these subdued pieces seems far more challenging to my ears than if it had appeared in more rambunctious music. In some ways, Douglas is playing the Mort Sahl or Pat Paulsen to the many Lenny Bruces and George Carlins of the avant. The message is undoubtedly not conventional but the presentation is. To say that not everyone gets it is to miss the point that some do.
Douglas might not have the stature of those comedians but neither do the stand ups of today. Douglas through his sly presentation is able to be both a challenging artist and one of the few superstars of jazz who isn't (yet?) a legend.
That superstar status was confirmed Douglas even hit the stage on May 4. Concertgoers who arrived even a half-hour before the scheduled start time of 10 p.m. at the HotHouse
in Chicago's south loop had to wait in line. "They aren't finished with sound checks," an attendant explained to the crowd.
"What the hell is this?," I asked myself. "Did Ticket Master get their cut? Is there going to be a big screen that I can watch the concert on like at arena concerts?"
Fortunately the clean charm of the HotHouse -which is a nice variation from the appropriate grit of the Velvet Lounge and the indie rock chic grime of the Empty Bottle- wasn't lost by the time the crowd of probably a little under 200 got to their seats.
The group performing was the same as the one on The Infinite
, save for Potter's role being filled by tenor saxophonist Rick Margitza, and the tunes performed came primarily from The Infinite
and had all had the album's vibe. Still the material was, at different points, far funkier than anything on the disc, which was itself arguably the most groove oriented release from Douglas. When the leader was not playing during these sections, which is to say the great majority of these sections, he would circle the stage throwing up his shoulders and shaking his head like a boxer loosening up for a match. At one point he had his back to the crowd, like Miles Davis who Margitza played with in the late 1980s, and was looking in the direction of a photo of the late Lester Bowie, whose playing Douglas often makes nods to. The image was a comical antidote to Douglas' music, which almost always seems seriously constructed even when the result is humor.
The performance also contained periods that were far freer than anything on The Infinite
. Genus and Penn made several seamless transitions from very composition based jams to free form periods and then back again. The apparent ease with which they moved between these two methods of playing was most impressive. Given that most of the recorded efforts logged by Genus and Penn have been with mainstream acts such as Jeff Watts and Rodney Whitaker, this work represents something of a, perhaps unintentional, response to the recent slew albums like Roy Campbell's Ethnic Stew and Brew
, William Parker's O'Neal's Porch
and Matthew Shipp's Pastoral Composure
where musicians identified with outside tackled the inside.
The rhythm section, including Caine, also deserves credit for some of the better solos. When Douglas and Margitza dropped out, it provided a perfect opportunity for Caine to show his stuff. At times he sounded like Joe Zawinul on but with enough of the classical influences that have characterized much of his work. (Which isn't to say Zawinul's playing doesn't bear the influence of classical music.) I first became aware of Caine's work three years ago through Don Byron's 1998 release Nu Blaxploitation
and have remained impressed by the quality of his musicianship and ability to use a variety of influences as shading for his playing in one genre or another without creating a hybrid.
Penn also shined in solos, some of which were played with accompaniment of Caine and Genus. For a while now I've wondered why more drummers didn't try to mix in their solos with the backing work of other musicians since the idea is accepted as normal for every other instrument and yet also very different from the norm. The busy and multi-directional rhythms of Penn worked quite well in this context.
But above all else this was a rather conventional outing with the head-solo-head format being only slightly modified to a head-horn solos-rhythm section solos-theme format. If it wasn't for the strong playing of all involved, except for Margitza who was hardly notable, boredom could easily have set in. It certainly didn't help that the group didn't attempt any "freeway intersections."
Most of the audience probably didn't share my feelings as they gave the quintet a long round of applause after they played for a little over an hour. But when it became clear the band was not returning for an encore, smiles were hard to come by.
This evening's music was not over, however. After about 40 minutes of equipment being moved on and off the stage, Brooklyn based percussionist Tatsuya Nakatani performed with local stalwarts Josh Abrams and Jim Baker. My only experience with Nakatani prior to this had been on the self-titled release from a trio called Fetish on the Tautology label. The percussionist was by no means the star of the disc but he stood out for exploding on a variety of percussion instruments. He seemed to be going for pure sound as opposed to what drummers and percussionists usually go for. That made for enjoyable listening but also frustration because, without any visuals, it was unclear what he had done to produce such a sound.
Nakatani did not disappoint. His "kit" consisted of drums and cymbals that looked odd but seemed to contain the basic ingredients such as snare, tom, kick, ride, crash and hi-hat. Additionally he had a variety of sticks, brushes and mallets and percussion knick-knacks. Perhaps the best way to understand how he played is to look at all of these items as elements. During the performance Nakatani would play one or more of these elements for a period of time before moving on to another. Sometimes he played rhythms and sometimes there weren't any. Sometimes Nakatani would stick with an element or two for a while and other times he would dispense with it with seconds. Sometimes he sat the element down with out making a sound but more than once he dropped an element upon another element on the floor producing a crash sound. Nakatani also did some "arco percussion" playing, which is exactly what it says and produced something a tortured bass sound.
The two percussionists I can think of Nakatani having the most in common with are Paul Lytton and Michael Zerang. All three are as interested in sound the way reed players and pianists more often are but during this performance Nakatani displayed far more energy and far less patience than those players are known for. This could be interpreted as immaturity but in this setting at least it seemed more like a way of coloring the music.
Baker began on the keyboard but switched over to electronics after the first section. It was a smart move since the hiss and stir sounds that Baker got out of manipulating tubes and such were a far better match for Nakatani's work. Together the two produced textures with more than an insignificant similarity to those of Witness
, even if this performance was far less structured, featured harsher sounds and existed on a smaller scale.
Unfortunately Abrams contributions to the music were limited. He is certainly a talented bassist who has experience working in both free jazz and experimental music settings but seemed lost in the middle on this occasion. He went for specific periods not playing or playing very little. Abrams didn't distract from what Baker and Nakatani were doing but it would have been nice if had played a larger role.
The three performed for over an hour to a crowd that began as a little under half those who had seen Douglas play and ended up being more than halved once again. With every scrape or crash, it appeared like somebody got up to leave. Perhaps this is to be expected from pairings like this but it was still disheartening. It would be nice if Douglas had larger coattails. Better yet, it would be nice for more people appreciated a broader range of improvised music.