Two exquisite and exploratory new albums on the trumpet great’s Greenleaf label continue to showcase his fearlessness in flight
Artist: Dave Douglas
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Artist: Dave Douglas / Uri Caine / Andrew Cyrille
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Dave Douglas isn’t only one of the most celebrated jazz musicians of the past couple of decades – he’s also one of the most prolific.
Ever since he founded his label Greenleaf, the New York-based trumpeter and composer has issued a steady stream of annual projects – studio albums, collaborations, live albums, one-off tracks and, through his Bandcamp, special content through his subscriber series. That this ever-present flow of music rarely dips in quality is a testament to Douglas’ talents as a writer, player, arranger and bandleader.
Engage was originally a series of tracks issued exclusively to subscribers, but have now been collected on CD. A sequel of sorts to Douglas’ 2018 collection Uplift, Engage is something rare for a contemporary jazz album: a political statement. Galvanized by the election of Donald Trump and the need for direct, if not radical, change in the current slate of elected officials, Douglas composed a set of songs intended to keep the energy of the 2018 elections burning – to remind people that engagement with society, and the political process in particular, can indeed effect change. That’s a challenge, of course, for songs without words – anyone hearing these tunes outside of the context of the album or Douglas’ track notes on the downloads will be unlikely to get the message. At least not immediately – the strength of the compositions and players may well be enough to draw listeners in and want to know more, and then hopefully discovering the messages behind the tunes.
A good thing, then, that the work is so strong. Joined by a stellar ensemble of modern jazz people, including saxophonist Anna Webber, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, drummer Kate Gentile and bassist Nick Dunston, Douglas gives them tunes that not only bring out their best as soloists, but as a collectively improvising ensemble. One of his most melodic and accessible tunes songs – all the better to entice listeners – “Showing Up” lets everyone put their best foot forward as a group, staying at least in the tune’s periphery even during solos. Potential audience thus beckoned, the group combo hits with more challenging themes. “Where Do We Go From Here?” encapsulates voting rights, encouraginges people to get out the vote with a knotty, but accessible, ensemble performance that updates Louis Armstrong for the twenty-first century. “How Are the Children?” invokes gun control through one of the prettiest melodies on the record. “Everywhere But Here” adds a note of sadness as it wonders why the U.S. is the only industrialized nation without universal health care. Given the thorny textures and aggressive riffing in “Faith Alliance,” one suspects it’s less about the power of the faithful coming together and more about how that spiritual communion will be abused for political ends. “Free Libraries” and “Whole Souls,” however, bring back the spirit of optimism inherent in the title – Douglas and his band come to lift us up, not bring us down. And that they do, with some of the strongest music he’s yet composed.
Devotion, however, takes a different tack altogether. Alongside piano-playing contemporary Uri Caine and avant-garde drum legend Andrew Cyrille, Douglas performs original tunes inspired by both 200-year-old Sacred Harp songs and “particularly important” individuals. The clattering, vibrant “Prefontaine” borrows its title from seventies long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. The rollicking “D’Andrea,” featuring Caine on finger-cracking piano reminiscent of Don Pullen, is dedicated to Italian jazz composer Franco D’Andrea, as is the muted trumpet-led “Francis of Anthony.” The pair immediately following that duo also come with dedication to a single person – the swinging, bluesy “Miljøsang” and the busy tango “False Allegiances” pay tribute to the eclectic genius Carla Bley. Accessible yet challenging, “Rose and Thorn” nods to composer Mary Lou Williams, to whom Douglas has hailed before, on his remarkable early ‘aughts LP Soul to Soul. The title song, dedicated to no one in particular but encapsulating the album, finds Caine at his melodic, exciting best.
Indeed, Caine practically takes on co-frontman status here, his keyboard work skillful and soulful all at once. Cyrille is his unusual unconventional self, keeping the beat precise while playing around it like a hurricane spinning on its eye. Douglas is in top form, punchy or lyrical as required, and he sounds as inspired by his bandmates as he does the songs’ subjects.
It’s difficult to say that Devotion is one of his best albums, simply because the trumpeter has been killing it pretty consistently throughout his career. Paired with the more civic-minded Engage, though, Devotion becomes half of a one-two punch any less fertile artist would envy.