Dave Douglas at Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
October 8, 2005
This has been a great period for trumpeter Dave Douglas. The Infinite, Freak In, Strange Liberation, Mountain Passagesno bandleader this decade has surpassed Douglas in terms of remarkable recorded output.
The excellence of the above CDs makes the fact that I like his new Keystone the best of all of them pretty much a matter of subjective taste; we're dealing with an abundance of riches here. The music on Keystone developed as a result of Douglas's fascination with now-obscure silent film comic Roscoe "Fatty Arbuckle, whose status as filmic auteur (he wrote, directed and starred in his films) predates the still-revered Charlie Chaplin. Douglas wrote Keystone's modern electronics-imbued jazz to function as new scores for some of Arbuckle's films. The Keystone albumonly available online through Douglas's Greenleaf labelcomes with an accompanying DVD of Arbuckle's 1916 three-reeler Fatty & Mabel Adrift, so one can judge at home how well Douglas' score works as accompaniment to Arbuckle's silent comedy.
It certainly worked magnificently as live music. Douglas and his band Keystoneconsisting of Douglas, saxophonist Marcus Strickland,drummer Gene Lake, bassist Brad Jones, turntablist Jahi Sundance Lake and Fender Rhodes player Adam Benjaminbrought the music and the filmic elements of the Keystone project to Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. The musicians were the same as those that made the recording with the substitution of Sundance Lake for turntablist DJ Olive and Benjamin for Wurlizer player Jamie Saft. Did the music work as background music for silent film?
For that matter, was it truly intended to? A hysterical and unjust scandal left Arbuckle's career in ruins by the 1920s, and at this event it was the name Douglas, not Arbuckle, that was attracting customers. Douglas, however, is a fascinated Arbuckle fan, and the band performed seated below the film screen ("Can everyone see? he asked. "Are we in the way? ).
The performance started with the longest film, the 34-minute Fatty & Mabel Adrift. The band sounded fantastic as it launched into the score (specifically the gorgeously expansive theme of the piece on the CD called "Sapphire Sky Blue ), Sundance Lake's turntables swooping and sighing from the Old Town's superlative sound system. The music then went into parts of "Butterfly Effect (Strickland playing exquisite soprano) and the hard electrogroove of "Famous Players or so it seemed to me; I may have mistaken some themes for others. In any case, the latter section had a particularly killing solo from the leader on open horn; it's getting a bit absurd to remark upon how well Douglas is playing trumpet lately, because "lately is beginning to cover many years.
Meanwhile the film played above the musicians, and despite its modern hue, the music works well as counterpart to Arbuckle's comedy. I have to absent myself from any deeper discussion here, as I was probably a little too music-obsessed to sit back and enjoy the filmand I've always been an Arbuckle fan. I tended to drift away from the movie to watch the band. Certainly, an up-tempo section of the score blended seamlessly with a particularly droll sequence in the film of Arbuckle, Mabel Norman and Luke the Dog sitting together around a table at mealtime (Luke gets his own chair). Just as amusing was the sight of Douglas here watching and laughing at the sequence between his blistering trumpet parts.
Whatever my ability to appreciate the movie, the band worked through Douglas' score precisely and with plenty of power and groove. A long section using the theme of "A Noise From the Deep simply smoked as Douglas delivered a bracing muted trumpet solo over Jones' supple stoptime lines on his Ampeg Baby Bass and Benjamin's chiming Rhodes. Benjamin's Rhodes was perhaps slightly less of a presence live than Jamie Saft's Wurlitzer was on record, and Sundance Lakes' turntables were somewhat more of a presence live than DJ Olive's on CDbut this is one of Douglas' best bands and drummer Gene Lake is a remarkably versatile, nuanced player.
The group then performed its score to the two-reel Fatty's Tintype Tangle; this incorporated the music from the glorious "Just Another Murder, with its irresistable time shifts from a grooving 4/4 to a manic doubletime 2/4, drummer Lake working these shifts dynamically under a fine tenor solo from Strickland. The film's pretty good, too, and its finale of Arbuckle fleeing a crazed Alaskan by scampering across a high power line (you probably had to be there to understand) was accompanied by some appropriate percussive bedlam and horn accents before the group snapped back into the "Just Another Murder theme for the picture's end.
Douglas then led the quintet into a piece called "Arbuckle (no film showing at all), with a howling-laughter turntable intro, scorching rapidfire trumpet, and a typically melodically rich tenor break from Strickland over slashing turntable cuts. The leader cued the band immediately into "Pool Sharks, which featured a rather psychedelic Fender Rhodes solo from Benjamin and a turntable break from Sundance Lake that undermined any claim that turntablists don't play real music.
The evening ended with a showing of the Arbuckle short "Fatty's Plucky Pup, and the accompanying tune, a mid-tempo groover that's all mellow warmth and burnished edges known as "Luke the Dog, has to rank as one of Douglas' best unrecorded tunes. The band was at its tightest here, simmering with a sort of wry, good-natured intensitysort of like good silent comedy.
Ultimately, one's ability to appreciate this music as mere accompaniment to Arbuckle's movies depends on one's mood, desires and preferences. Keystone is, in any case, another ambitious Douglas project that's produced a great band, some stunning music, and a much-deserved resurrection of Roscoe Arbuckle's work. All in all, a fascinating show.