With trumpeter Dave Douglas the only clear thing to expect is the unexpected. His work has ranged from tribute albums to Wayne Shorter and Booker Little to Eastern European explorations with his Tiny Bell Trio; from the electronica of Freak In to post-Miles excursions on The Infinite. While developing a personal vernacular that blends staggeringly through-composed music with flights of pure improvisation, Douglas has steadfastly stuck to a philosophy asserting that everything is permitted.
The only rule is: there are no rules. With his latest release, Mountain Passages , the first for his fledgling Greenleaf Music label, Douglas continues to create music that is daring yet familiar, challenging yet strangely comforting.
The genesis of the group Nomad, consisting of reedman Michael Moore, cellist Peggy Lee, tubaist Marcus Roja and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, is an interesting story. Commissioned by the Festival at The Sound of the Dolomites in Northern Italy to create a cycle of music that would be played high up in the Dolomites mountain region, since the group would literally have to hike a few thousand feet to the place of performance, Douglas was restricted to including instruments that could be easily carried on foot. There would be no amplification, so the mix of instruments would have to be something that could be achieved naturally and acoustically.
The success of the endeavour turned Nomad into an ongoing concern, one that would ostensibly come together only under similar conditions; at one point Douglas doubted that the group would ever be documented. Fortunately he has relaxed his stance, and on one day in June, 2004 the group converged in a studio in Vancouver, Canada to commit Nomad's music to disc. In equal turns melancholy and joyous, introspective and outwardly celebratory, the music on Mountain Passages reflects Douglas' interest in finding ways to blur the lines between composition and liberation.
Douglas continues to be fascinated by ways in which unusual combinations of instruments can work together to create a rich texture that defies categorization. While tuba and cello are certainly deep enough to hold down the bottom end, there are times when Moore's bass clarinet fills the role while Lee's cello is freed for more unrestricted flights of fancy. On "Family of the Climber" trumpet and cello combine to create a chamber-like harmonic backdrop for Moore's soaring alto solo. "Gumshoe" mixes a staggering ensemble theme with completely free passages, akin to the way John Zorn's Masada Quartet, of which Douglas has been a long-time member, leaps from seemingly total chaos to complex unison lines at the drop of a hat. Elsewhere "North Point Memorial," written for Douglas' deceased father, is more elegiac in tone, a lyrical chamber piece that is moving in its apparent simplicity.
Mountain Passages is something of a daring d'but for Douglas' new label; yet for long-time fans it should come as no surprise. Stylistically as diverse as anything he has done to date, yet never lacking focus, Mountain Passages represents simply another type of canvas to be coloured by Douglas' ever broadening musical palette.
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Personnel: Dave Douglas (trumpet), Michael Moore (alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet), Peggy Lee (cello), Marcus Rojas (tuba), Dylan van der Schyff (drums)