Featuring Jon Irabagon, Matt Mitchell, Linda Oh and Rudy Royston.
“How do you respond to the tremendous losses that seem to keep coming in this new century? Love. Love, and more love is the only answer. To invest more heart and soul into our project, to bring to bear all the passion and compassion that we can.”
Trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas, one of the most prolific and influential jazz musicians of our time, has created “a body of work [that] reflects an inveterate engagement with the world, taking inspiration from literature, politics, dance and film, as well as jazz and new-music traditions,” writes Nate Chinen of The New York Times. But Douglas also draws from deep personal experience to inform his art. In 2012 he honored his late mother, Emily, with the album Be Still, debuting a youthful new quintet. Time Travel followed in 2013, and the quintet ripened further.
With its new album Brazen Heart, on Douglas’ own Greenleaf label, the quintet arrives at a new creative peak, having logged many hours on the road: Douglas and the band set a goal of gigging in all 50 states in honor of Douglas’s 50th birthday in March 2013. Douglas wrote new music for the occasion, and much of it appears on Brazen Heart, in takes that crackle with precision and improvisational depth. With Douglas are tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston — every one a significant bandleader in their own right.
While the theme of loss emerges once again — Douglas’s older brother Damon died of cancer in June 2015 — the trumpeter did not intend Brazen Heart as an elegy, in the manner of Be Still. Rather, the new album is an affirmation of love’s power in the face of tragedy, whether personal or global. “It’s a call to arms,” Douglas says. “It takes a lot of bravery to go through these things, and that’s the passion that we put into our art.” Damon was an important figure in Douglas’ professional life: “He gave me my first gig — when I was in 10th grade he had my band come up and play at his college. Later, whenever we were on tour in New England he would help out and drive. He liked to hang out with the band.”
On Brazen Heart the quintet deepens its pursuit of a more polyphonic and through-composed sound, as Douglas commented in the Time Travel liner note, “rather than just taking turns soloing on a form. We want to find something that’s in between soloing and trading and playing together.” With Brazen Heart they’ve surely found it. The subtle interchange of melodic foreground and background roles between Douglas, Irabagon and Mitchell is also highly developed and beautifully executed.
Another factor in the growth of the quintet: Douglas has been spending time with master composer and jazz legend Wayne Shorter. This is a happy outgrowth of Douglas’ work with Joe Lovano in the co-led band Sound Prints, devoted exclusively to new Shorter-inspired and Shorter-penned works. (Linda Oh plays in Sound Prints as well.) “Wayne has said some things that are really profound, and it’s really influenced the way I think about writing for this band, and the way that we play,” Douglas says. “If you listen to Time Travel and this record, you can hear a real difference. I like that idea of progress and change.”
“Brazen Heart,” the title track, was commissioned for the Ecstatic Music Festival — a piece for large brass ensemble to be performed at the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan. As Douglas asserts in his liner note to Brazen Heart: “How do you respond to the tremendous losses that seem to keep coming in this new century? Love. Love, and more love is the only answer. To invest more heart and soul into our project, to bring to bear all the passion and compassion that we can.” Underscoring the point, Douglas includes a quote in the liner notes from influential psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl: “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”
The two non-originals of the set, “Deep River” and “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” are old spirituals that bring to mind another lost loved one in the jazz world, the great Charlie Haden. “I found my way to them from playing the hymns from Be Still,” Douglas says. “I had also done the Sacred Harp music with Uri Caine on Present Joys. In this band, Linda and Rudy have deep musical connections to the church.” Oh solos plaintively on both the spirituals, with great musicality and touch. “I wanted to find our own way to play these very old pieces,” Douglas adds, “and to me the freshest look was to play them as simply and forthrightly as possible.”
Mitchell is formidable as the first soloist on “Hawaiian Punch,” named for a state in which Douglas did not manage to perform on his 50th anniversary tour. All the material for this tune was written during one of Douglas’ collaborative composing workshops. “It came out like a Monk tune, in the sense that it’s these independent moving voices, no chord symbols. It’s really about how we move around freely through these different obstacles and keep it together. It’s like certain pop tunes I hear that have really complicated structures, and you almost don’t think twice about it.”
Douglas wrote “Variable Current” some years ago but withdrew it after Linda Oh pointed out a fundamental error in Douglas’ notation. “I went to take a lesson with guitarist Rory Stuart, a great rhythm specialist, and he showed me how to approach what I wanted. The basic idea is a tune that’s like an accordion, that expands and contracts. Metrically it keeps notching up and then back down to exactly the same tempo. Every chorus it goes through this transformation. I fixed the tune and it was a learning curve for all of us playing it. Luckily I have band members who can bust me, and keep me on the right track when I bring in new pieces. I rely on them to take this music to the place that we go.”
Both “Miracle Gro” and “Pyrrhic Apology” exist as big band arrangements; the latter gets its title from “the feeling of wanting and needing to apologize for something that you can’t change. When it became clear that my brother wasn’t going to make it, we had several conversations about things that happened when we were kids, and I realized it doesn’t do any good for me to apologize at this point. It’s a pyrrhic apology.”
“Lone Wolf” and “Wake Up Claire” are the technical killers of the set. Douglas remarks: “I wrote a series of tunes where I wanted to get at the crazy intensity of an improvisation we normally get to at the 10- to 12- minute mark, and see if I could take that spontaneous excitement and create it within these shorter forms.” The concise yet complex “Inure Phase” (read: in your face) refers to a Steve Reichian “phase” concept in which “one person is in seven, another in five, another in four, another in three. They’re playing the same line but they gradually fall apart and come back together.”
Douglas, recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Aaron Copland award and two Grammy nominations, has a recorded résumé stretching back to the late 1980s, including more than 40 records as a leader of varied ensembles, with music frequently reaching beyond jazz to draw on classical, folk, Balkan music, Klezmer, free improvisation and electronica. In addition to his work with the Dave Douglas Quintet, his recent Greenleaf releases include High Risk with beat-maker and electronic producer Shigeto; Present Joys, a duo with master pianist (and former Douglas Quintet member) Uri Caine; and Riverside, featuring a quartet co- led with saxophonist Chet Doxas.