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Dave Douglas: Greenleaf Portable Series, Volumes 1-3


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While many jazz artists have a variety of ongoing projects at any given time, few are as stylistically spread out as Dave Douglas. Since his emergence in the mid 1990s as a member of saxophonist/cottage industry proprietor John Zorn's flagship Masada quartet, the intrepid trumpeter has explored an almost unprecedented variety of detailed projects. In his early days he had his string quintet, where violin, cello and bass intersected with trumpet and drums on albums including Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1993); a powerhouse sextet that delivered tributes to legendary artists such as saxophonist Wayne Shorter on Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997) and the Eastern European ethno-centricities of his Dave Tiny Bell Trio Douglas on sets like Constellations (Hatology, 1995).

Later, with a multi-year major label deal inked to allow him the freedom he demanded with the distribution he deserved, Douglas worked projects from the accordion-driven chamber-jazz of his Charm of the Night Sky group and A Thousand Evenings (RCA, 2000), and the early electro-acoustic experimentation of Freak In (RCA/Bluebird, 2003), to a quintet that, starting with The Infinite (RCA/Bluebird, 2002), took trumpeter Miles Davis' early Rhodes-based recordings like Miles in the Sky (Columbia, 1968) and Filles de Kilimanjaro (Columbia, 1968) as a starting point. And that doesn't include one-offs such as the left-of-center Witness (RCA/Bluebird, 2001), Douglas' 1998 Joni Mitchell tribute, Moving Portrait (DIW), or the collaborative Bow River Falls (Premonition, 2004).

In the second decade of this new millennium, Douglas continues to pull out the stops, and with the introduction of his independent Greenleaf imprint, has been a quick adapter to technological and industry shifts, releasing an unprecedented (at least in jazz) series of live performances in digital-only form, including the quintet of The Infinite, his groove-heavy electric Keystone group and, more recently, Brass Ecstasy, a quintet that, in part, pays tribute to the late trumpeter, Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy, while carving out its own space with more than a hint of New Orleans brass band party-down.

It's a strange world, indeed, where response to a download-only release has been so successful that it has actually encouraged the artist to issue the music in hard media form. At a time when CDs are, if not threatened with complete extinction, certainly no longer the income-booster they used to be, 2011 has seen Douglas' Greenleaf Portable Series (GPS) morph from a download-only project to a three-CD box, Three Views, that collects the series' first three releases, each from a different group , including the three year-old Brass Ecstasy (Rare Metals), a nascent quintet with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Vijay Iyer (Orange Afternoons) and a first-time collaboration with contemporary classical percussion ensemble So Percussion (Bad Mango).

Each of the GPS sets reflects a different side of Douglas' approach to playing, writing and band-leading, building on a body of work that's remarkable for its size, depth and breadth. Rare Metals presents a set of newly written music for Brass Ecstasy, while Orange Afternoons represents a return to completely acoustic music, and Bad Mango the kind of intrepid, out-of-the-box thinking that's become de rigueur from an artist responsible for daring records such as Witness and Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1993). With so many projects on the go, it be completely understandable if Douglas were to somehow begin repeating himself—and yet, with nearly 40 titles under his own name since 1993, representing more than a dozen groups not including the one-offs, Douglas continues to create groups for whom the only link thread is the trumpeter's writing, and a playing style that clearly adapts to any context while remaining resolute and unmistakable.

Chapter Index
  1. GPS Volume 1: Rare Metals
  2. GPS Volume 2: Orange Afternoons
  3. GPS Volume 3: Bad Mango

Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy
Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 1: Rare Metals
Greenleaf Music

Rare Metals starts the Greenleaf Portable Series on a familiar note, if only because Douglas has been working with Brass Ecstasy since late 2008, releasing its first album, the CD/DVD combo Spirit Moves (Greenleaf) in the summer of 2009, in time for the summer festival season, making a hot and flat-out fun stop at the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

As much as Brass Ecstasy evokes the buoyant party-down vibe of a New Orleans brass band, the writing and freedom of interaction are more reminiscent of Lester Bowie's The Great Pretender (ECM, 1981) and, with the late trumpeter's equally left-of-center Brass Fantasy group, Avant Pop (ECM, 1986). Like Bowie, Brass Ecstasy mixes original music with covers, in the case of Spirit Moves, Otis Redding's and Steve Cropper's soul classic "Mister Pitiful" and country icon Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." Like Bowie, Douglas eschews a conventional rhythm section for the unorthodox brass front line of trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba, though the late trumpeter's group was often larger.

As good as Brass Ecstasy was in the studio, it has proved an even better live act, and in the past two years Douglas has not only released a live CD, United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport (Greenleaf, 2011), he's also made four live shows, from a 2008 date at New York's Jazz Standard, available in download-only format. But, barring three new originals, all these sets draw from Spirit Moves' songbook. Rare Metals doesn't just inaugurate GPS, it gives Brass Ecstasy a new set of material to play—five Douglas compositions and a gentle reading of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life."

Douglas' writing gives the group plenty of freedom, from "Town Hall," with a thematic focus and drummer Nasheet Waits' military drumming redolent of parades in small town America, though those marching bands never featured music with this many shifts in time (three in the first minute alone), nor did they provide the improvisational freedom Douglas does, as trombonist Luis Bonilla goes a capella with a warm tone burnished with a hint of growl. When the band reenters, Bonilla takes things further still, leveraging on his command of his instrument's expressive, vocal-like capabilities. "Night Growl" swings lightly, with Marcus Rojas proving that his tuba isn't just replacing the conventional role of a bass, its similarly vocal tendencies shaping a completely different expression of this quintet's bottom end.

"Thread" is another episodic piece that moves from rubato freedom to a loose kind of time, where free passages revolving around some core contexts are rallied through cue-driven motifs, with Douglas taking some spotlight time in a push-and-pull duo with Waits, where the drummer's fiery energy is contrasted by the trumpeter's largely languid but angular lines.

There may be moments of heat and joyous groove, but Rare Metals largely begins to distance itself from the stylistic specificities of Brass Ecstasy's humble beginnings, moving away from the party vibe that made it a better live act than studio one, and turning it into a group that can be appreciated as much from the comfort of a warm seat as it can the sweaty realm of a dance floor.

Dave Douglas
Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 2: Orange Afternoons
Greenleaf Music

It's been a long time since Douglas made a completely acoustic small group recording with a pianist—nearly 12 years, in fact, since Douglas released Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000), his loving tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams. But with pianist Vijay Iyer in tow, along with saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, Orange Afternoons' collection of six Douglas originals has the ability to be both lyrical and loquacious, steeped in form but comfortably traversing freer terrain, sometimes all in the same tune.

"Solato" begins with a simple, almost singsong motif harmonized by Douglas and Coltrane, and when Iyer, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Marcus Gilmore enter, it looks like the tune is going to be a groove-centric workout. But as the theme develops and the time shifts, it's clear that any sense of knowing where it's going is out the window. Instead, it turns into a rooted free-for-all, first with Iyer in the lead, all blocky chords and flittingly angular lines. Coltrane takes over---though Iyer remains a constant push-and-pull, as do Oh and, particularly Gilmore—cerebral in his careful construction and gradual build. Douglas comes last, laconically developing lines with broad intervallic leaps, effortlessly played, even as he holds a single high note for a seemingly impossible length of time before turning to rapid-fire lines that unexpectedly cue the group back to the song's theme.

Overt freedom driven by broad-stroke context-setting may be the order of the day, but this group largely favors careful consideration over reckless abandon. Douglas' solo on the more simmering intensity of "Orologi" builds slowly, almost inevitably after Coltrane's equally inexorable exploration of Oh and Gilmore's loose but ever-present pulse, the trumpeter picking up where the saxophonist leaves off, like grabbing the baton in a relay race. But while the group passes ideas around like a relay, that's where the comparison ends, because there's no sense of urgency. Instead, Douglas's quintet takes its time to patiently go where the music takes it, Iyer's solo seamlessly moving between sharper edges and surprisingly soft melodism.

The entire recording is defined by an unhurried sense of freedom, with only the closing "Frontier Justice" coming in under seven minutes, and four of Douglas' six tunes extending beyond the eight-minute mark. "The Gulf" opens the record on a gentler note, though it's singable melody ultimately ascends to great power, a structure that repeats again when Douglas takes his first solo of the disc, the solo front man at first, but ultimately joined by the rest of the group for some collective free play, but this time without losing the song's basic structure, both rhythmically and in its adherence to the changes, though they're taken to such far-reaching places that it's sometimes easy to lose sight of them.

Of the first three GPS sets, Orange Afternoons is, perhaps, the most exciting, because it represents a new group venture for Douglas that's filled with the same kind of promise as first recordings by the quintet of The Infinite, Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) and Charms of the Night Sky (Winter & Winter, 1998). With Iyer, Coltrane and Oh leaders in their own right, let's hope that it'll be possible to keep this group going, as Douglas' history has demonstrated that as good as his ongoing groups' first recordings are, they just keep on getting better and better.

Dave Douglas & So Percussion
Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 3: Bad Mango
Greenleaf Music

For the third and final release in this first round of Greenleaf Portable Series sets, Douglas counters the easy accessibility of recent recordings with Keystone, his Quintet and Brass Ecstasy—even Orange Afternoons—with one of his most overtly experimental releases since 2001's Witness, a daring song-cycle that blended acoustic and electronic instrumentation with some of the trumpeter's most fearlessly forward-thinking writing. It's no surprise, then, that amidst five newly composed pieces for his collaboration with new music percussion ensemble So Percussion, Douglas reprises two pieces from Witness—the pulsating "One More News," which opens Bad Mango, and the lengthier title track to his 2001 recording, which acts as both a centerpiece and highlight of this relatively brief release of just under 36 minutes.

The entire GPS series favors brevity, with Orange Afternoons the longest at 49 minutes and Rare Metals also clocking in at a little under 36 minutes. But quality over quantity is clearly the mantra here, and if all three releases paint a collective picture of Douglas as an artist with a seemingly endless flow of ideas, then Bad Mango finds him thinking well outside the box. So Percussion has interpreted minimalist co-founder Steve Reich's well-known Drumming (Cantaloupe, 2005), but it's the superb Amid the Noise (Cantaloupe, 2006) that defined this ensemble's ability to, like Douglas, think so far outside the box as to almost completely lose sight of it—almost, being the key word.

There've been some changes to So Percussion's lineup since Amid the Noise, with co-founders Adam Sliwinski and Jason Treuting now joined by Eric Beach and Josh Quillen, but the multi-instrumental wizardry of the group—in addition to tuned and unturned percussion, employing synthesizers, organ, melodica, musical saw and the catch-all that is described as "toys"—remains intact, providing far more potential than what, on paper, could sound somewhat monolithic (trumpet and percussion). To be sure, Douglas engages in some trumpet-and-percussion interplay during his incendiary solo on "One More News"—certainly one of the hottest moments across the three GPS sets—but in the setup of that song's context, Quillan's sinewy, fourths-driven synth provides chordal support, while Sliwinski doubles the trumpeter's theme on marimba, the whole thing driven by Treuting's drum kit work and Beach's toys. As effortlessly skilled at handling complex scoring as So Percussion is, based on what's going on behind Douglas' solo, it's clear that its four players are equally comfortable in an improvisational setting.

If percussion seems, on the surface, to be a somewhat limited palette, So Percussion proves it to be anything but, providing the same rich, orchestral tapestry as on Amid the Noise. The original "Witness " also featured tuned percussion (Bryan Carrott's vibes and marimba), but with a smaller ensemble and fewer front line instruments. Douglas' So Percussion collaboration is less dense and busy, even as Treuting (on kit) and Quillan (on kick drum, snare drum and ride cymbal) provide plenty of forward motion, with Douglas soloing over an extended pedal tone.

As successful as these two reworks are, the new music is even more successful, if only because it was composed with So Percussion in mind. The title track pushes forward, again with marimba doubling Douglas' at times grittier horn, intensifying over nearly six minutes to more chaotic drumming and some overdriven sonics coming from Beach and Quillen. "Nome" is a brief miniature of otherworldly sonics, Douglas' sketch of a composition revolving around only the barest suggestion from his horn, while the similarly brief "Spider" is a tad more centrist, as Douglas' simple, lyrical line hovers gracefully over a shifting landscape of organ, drums, percussion and sundry toys.

As intrinsically experimental as Douglas' first encounter with So Percussion is, Bad Mango is surprisingly approachable, for all its outré contexts and sound worlds. Perhaps that shouldn't really be a surprise from Douglas, an artist who may think on the broadest of musical terms, but whose penchant for compelling motifs across the vastest continuum of modern jazz continues to be confirmed and reaffirmed with each and every project. With the range of music covered by these inaugural releases in his Greenleaf Portable Series, Douglas demonstrates that the wellspring is far from dry, and that, nearly twenty years after emerging on the scene as a vital force, he remains as expansive, creative and relevant as ever.

Tracks and Personnel

Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 1: Rare Metals

Tracks: Town Hall; Night Growl; Lush Life; Thread; Safeway; My Old Sign.

Personnel: Dave Douglas: trumpet; Vincent Chancey: French horn; Luis Bonilla: trombone; Marcus Rojas: tuba; Nasheet Waits: drums.

Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 2: Orange Afternoons

Tracks: The Gulf; Valori Bollati; Solato; Orologi; Orange Afternoons; Frontier Justice.

Personnel: Dave Douglas: trumpet; Ravi Coltrane: saxophone; Vijay Iyer: piano; Linda Oh; Marcus Gilmore: drums.

Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 3: Bad Mango

Tracks: One More News; Bad Mango; Nome; Witness; Spider; One Shot; Time Leveler.

Personnel: Dave Douglas: trumpet; Eric Beach: Estey organ, Ableton, musical saw, toys, metronome, shruti box, crotales; Adam Sliwinski: marimba, toys, concert bass drum, glockenspiel; Jason Treuting: drum set, melodica, desk bells; Josh Quillen: Korg synthesizer, vocoder, kick drum, snare drum, ride cymbal.

Photo Credit
Courtesy of JazzBaltica

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