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Dave Douglas - Three Views

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Artist: Dave Douglas

Album: Three Views

Label: Greenleaf

Review date: Jan. 26, 2012

Sometimes I think it’s got to be hard to be Dave Douglas. The guy is such a peerless improviser, gifted with an astonishing technique and a vast imagination. Since more or less the beginning of his now decades-long career, he’s fashioned a compositional personality as elegant and powerful as just about any inside/out player, usually doing so by juggling multiple bands. So why is this hard? Because there’s such an assumption of excellence that it feels sometimes that Douglas gets overlooked by listeners, despite a high profile in mainstream media.

Three Views presents a series of snapshots of Douglas’ recent work, courtesy of three vibrant and quite different quintets (released as part of Greenleaf’s Portable Series). If Bad Mango, Orange Afternoons, and Rare Metals don’t sound like they’re reinventing the wheel, part of that is on purpose. These succinct, LP-length albums are meant to recall the glory days of Prestige and Blue Note, where working bands would hit the studio for an afternoon and lay down a set’s worth of repertory. This isn’t to say that the music lacks elegance and focus; Douglas is far too purposeful and exacting a bandleader and far too passionate a player for that to be the case. But it’s refreshing to have such relatively basic ingredients yielding such potent pleasures.

Bad Mango features the combo So Percussion, and it’s a knockout, with a sizzling front line of Douglas (who can carry so much music just on his own – a truly compositional improviser if that makes sense) and four ringers who play mostly percussion: drummer Jason Treuting (who also plays melodica and deskbells), mostly-keyboardist Josh Quillen (Korg, vocoder, bass drum, snare drum, and ride), percussionist Adam Sliwinski (marimba, glockenspiel, concert bass drum, and toys), and utility hitter Eric Beach (saw, toys, crotales, organ, metronomes, and shruti box, among other devices). The tunes are composed, and they’re filled with memorable lines, but most of the information given has to do with specific rhythmic shapes rather than harmonic architecture, and thus, it’s a pretty intense showcase for Douglas’s improvisational gifts. Here and there you get a couple slabs of noise, like the tasty drone “One Shot” and the abstraction “Nome.” And there are some nice little dalliances for just multiple percussionists, as on “One More News” and “Spider.” But they really hit the sweet spot on the sunbaked and lyrical “Witness,” the twisting title track, and the fantastic closer “Time Leveler,” for Douglas and twinned percussion.

Rare Metals showcases Douglas’ well-liked all-star quintet Brass Ecstasy (whose name obviously nods affectionately to Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy): Douglas, tuba-ace Marcus Rojas, French hornist Vincent Chancey, trombonist Luis Bonilla, and drummer Nasheet Waits. It’s a pretty riotous affair, filled with shouts and growls here, clarion fanfares there. But the sum is more than just instrumental effects, as enjoyable as these are. For me, it’s in the interplay between the varied modes of lyricism and the buoyant grooves the group generates (I have to single out Rojas for special praise in this area). Hear this on “Town Hall,” the infectiously contrapuntal “Thread,” the funky bottom-end groover “Night Growl,” and an impressively reimagined “Lush Life.” Terrific stuff.

Orange Afternoons (the longest record at 50 minutes) has Douglas exploring ostensibly the most traditional material, a rapturous quintet where he’s joined by Ravi Coltrane on tenor, Vijay Iyer on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums. But within the relatively understated music are some lovely forms of innovation. Paying attention to the dark copper shapes that oscillate on “The Gulf,” you can hear how Douglas alters his solo style by combining impressive gifts for melody with subtle alterations of timbre and attack, with fine gradations and fluctuations of tone giving his lines even more power and emotional nuance. This sounds quite fine alongside Coltrane, not least on the probing, at times brooding “Orologi” or the free-ish “Solato” (which features some dazzling exchanges between Iyer and Coltrane). But as with the other two views, Douglas sounds entirely committed to the more radiant pieces like “Valori Bollati” (whose buoyancy to me recalls Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”), the bright colors of the title track, and the brief “Frontier Justice,” with its weaving lines and lush rhythm work.

Taken together, these discs confirm Douglas’ power and originality without doubt. But they also remind of the simple pleasures of well-played jazz.

By Jason Bivins

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