With a discography that is as varied as it is large, trumpeter Dave Douglas has rightly earned the many accolades showered upon him since his emergence in the early '90s. From the Parallel Worlds string ensemble to the electronica of his Freak In group, his work has been characterized by a broad sense of exploration and an impossible-to-pigeon-hole originality. So when Kenny Werner asked him to direct the annual Banff Workshop in '02, he chose to reconvene a group that had previously played once at the '98 Vancouver Jazz Festival, consisting of cellist Peggy Lee, percussionist Dylan Van Der Schyff, and French clarinettist Louis Sclavis . The workshop went off as well as would be expected and, when discovering Banff had a state of the art recording studio, the group decided to document their work together. The result, Bow River Falls , is a true cooperative effort, with compositions contributed by all involved and indicative of what can happen when you put four world-class improvisers together in a relaxed and open setting.
Recorded in a single afternoon, the set opens with one of Douglas' favourite compositions from the late Steve Lacy, "Blinks," setting the stage for the rest of the programme, that being of shorter form pieces that are mere sketches, providing a road map for collective improvisation. While pieces like "Blinks" demonstrate a more outgoing personality, much of the recording is introverted, with an almost chamber-like sensibility. Overall rhythmically static, with Lee very occasionally providing more insistent pulses, the recording has some precedence in Douglas' Parallel Worlds Ensemble. But with less emphasis on form the result is more unpredictable. Sclavis' "Fete Forraine" starts with a rubato trumpet-clarinet theme but quickly heads for uncharted territory, with the dynamics ebbing and flowing. What is truly remarkable about this quartet is how responsive they are to each other; a simple idea, a simple rhythm, can be enough fodder to inspire a complete change in direction.
Douglas' "Petals" starts with one of the more clearly-defined rhythmic figures of the set, adhering more to individual soloing and a stronger compositional focus. Still, there is always the feeling that the group is using the written page as a mere jumping-off point, and that notations are nothing more than guidelines.
And yet as much as each piece can traverse a variety of territories, there is an unmistakable unity. As unprecedented as the group is, it feels organic and strangely familiar. While each player comes from a diverse set of backgrounds, together they converge, with a style that reflects those backgrounds yet is completely unified, clearly a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Bow River Falls is as fine an example of collective improvisation around predefined sketches as you are apt to hear this year, a document that proves that with the right group of players, relative unfamiliarity can be less a hurdle and more an inspiration.
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