Dave Douglas & Keystone at SFJAZZ

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Douglas' approach to the problem is intriguing: he has avoided the trap of writing too closely for the screen.
Dave Douglas & Keystone
Thursday, October 26, 2005
Palace of Fine Arts, SF
Dave Douglas and his electrified Keystone band merged past and future on the last stop of their brief American tour, playing for an enthusiastic crowd of hipsters at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts as part of the 23rd annual San Francisco Jazz Festival. The Keystone project is focused on new scores Douglas has written for the silent films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, a brilliant comedian whose career was ruined in the 1920s by false accusations of rape and murder.

It's a top-notch sextet, featuring Marcus Strickland on sax, Adam Benjamin on Fender Rhodes, the bass/drum tandem of Brad Jones and Gene Lake, and DJ Olive on turntables, but cutting-edge jazz and 90-year-old films can be an uncomfortable fit. Film purists may grumble, but taken on its own terms a Keystone show makes for a highly enjoyable experience.

With the band bunched on one side of the vast Palace of Fine Arts stage, the program opened with a screening of 1916's "Fatty and Mabel Adrift." Arbuckle and co-star Mabel Normand play farmyard sweethearts who marry and buy a beach cottage, only to find themselves put out to sea by Arbuckle's jealous rival. The film is an ideal subject for a modern score. It is relatively fast-paced and very funny, but also obscure enough so that most modern viewers can experience the film and music with no preconceived notions about either.

This is far from virgin territory. In recent years, artists such as Bill Frisell, the Beau Hunks, Club Foot Orchestra and the Asylum Street Spankers have all set new music to old films. But Douglas' approach to the problem is intriguing: not only has he rejected any attempt to perpetuate the kind of plinky ragtime sound that most people associate with the silent film era, he has also avoided the trap of writing too closely for the screen. There are no stock motifs indicating specific characters or ersatz sound effects built into the music. Instead, Douglas has taken a scene-by-scene approach, writing music that captures the spirit of each scene in toto with only occasional, abstract references to the specific actions of the moment (a more mechanical tone when a car breaks down, or a heightened sense of danger as a hired villain swills gasoline and smokes a dynamite cigar). The rest of the time, the music seems to spar with the film, with Douglas' driving, funky themes careening around Arbuckle's folksy slapstick. The visual spectacle tended to distract from the music, or vice versa. But several sequences were effective, including the film's raucous climax.

The music was a better fit with two shorter films: the amusement-park themed "Mabel's Willful Way" and a Perils of Pauline-ish kidnap caper called "Fatty's Plucky Pup," both released in 1915. In "Willful Way," Douglas drew his inspiration from a title card early in the film: "Music and onions cause family discord." Successfully evoking this phrase, Douglas provided a rollicking roller coaster score and a strident march that worked nicely with the onscreen action.

Even better was "Plucky Pup," which featured a rocket-fueled cartoon strut that gave the extremely silly plot a jolt of real excitement and suspense. Douglas seemed to be particularly inspired by the energetic performance of Luke the Dog, the titular hero of "Plucky Pup," who was also featured in some of the most effective portions of "Fatty and Mabel Adrift".

Three additional pieces were played as "instrumentals," that is, without film accompaniment. Presented in this way the three tunes proved to be small gems of modern jazz. A snappy number called "Pool Sharks" was the most engaging of these, offering strong solo space for trumpet, sax, and Fender Rhodes, while DJ Olive provided otherworldly tones and chirrups from his turntables.

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