When hatOLOGY put it out back in summer 2009, pianist Horace Tapscott
's mother lode of groove, The Dark Tree
, originally released in 1991, looked like a serious contender for best reissue of the year. It's still a playerbut so too is trumpeter Dave Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio's Constellations
, which slips under the wire at the eleventh hour.
First released in 1995, Constellations catches Douglas on the cusp of elevation to international downtown fame, and Tiny Bell's guitarist, Brad Shepik (then still known as Brad Schoeppach), and drummer, Jim Black, were close behind on their own trajectories. Constellations was a shared calling card and, 15 years later, it still sounds like a blast of fresh air.
Douglas had formed Tiny Bell as a vehicle for exploring European song forms, and the group's debut, The Tiny Bell Trio (Songlines, 1993), was centered on pieces by French, Hungarian and German composers. By February 1995, when Constellations was recorded in the Radio DRS studio in Zurich, Switzerland mid-way through a European tour, the group was including a greater proportion of originals in its repertoire. Six of the nine tracks on the album are by Douglas, with Herbie Nichols, Georges Brassens and Robert Schumann contributing the rest. Douglas' tunes retain a distinctly European resonance, a non-literalist mix of predominantly Spanish and Balkan influences, impassioned and exhilarating, which also finds room for more cerebral, conservatoire moments such as the rigorously chromatic "Scriabin."
The album opens with the wild, up tempo "Constellations" and carries on cooking at a high heat for most of its 58:58 minutes. There's a palpable feeling of anger behind some of Douglas' tunes. "Taking Sides" was written for the victims of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. "Maquiladora" references US industry-run, low-wage factories along the Mexican border. Douglas' arrangement of Nichols' bop burner "The Gig," on the other hand, is shot through with impish wit, returned to on Schumann's "Vanitatus Vanitatum (Mit Humor)." Brassens' "Les Croquants" is divertingly jaunty during its 2:47 minutes.
Douglas' trumpet, visceral and vocalized, steers most of the tracks, counterpointed by Shepik's emphatic, rock-tinged guitar and Black's leathery syncopations. As Douglas observes in his (brief) liner notes, three years down the line Tiny Bell had achieved split-second reaction times and extraordinary fluidity between the roles of soloist and accompanist. Douglas is undoubtedly the leader here but the music is a true collective endeavor. Three exploding stars, a shared focus, and one enduring masterpiece.