In the liner notes to his superb new album, Dave Douglas makes reference to the parameters of his music, and the driving forces behind it, as his band explores the boundaries of freedom, playing music unattached to formula or dogma, and willing to risk failure. Douglas also says he'd been wanting to record with Bill Frisell since 1987. Now, in 2004, the great guitarist augments Douglas' Quintet for a wide-ranging program of searching, urgent jazz. And make no mistake, the music on Strange Liberation is jazz, exploding in a veritable riot of colors, moods, idioms, and rhythms, including some spirited 4/4 swing.
The first two pieces on Strange Liberation recall Miles Davis in his Filles De Kilimanjaro period, as Douglas quotes from Davis' "It's About That Time" and the rhythm section provides a pointillistic, floating rock rhythm. But the resemblance to the Dark Prince's music is strictly superficial, as repeated listenings reveal a push-pull and flow between James Genus' bass and Clarence Penn's drums that is very different from Miles' ostinato-driven music. After the title tune and its distinctive Frisell solo, Douglas delights us with "Skeeter-ism," which he describes as his response to an eight year old child's attempt to play "Blue Monk." The piece shows a deep understanding of Monk's organizing principles. It's witty rather than merely quirky, and it provides a challenging launch pad for the solos, particularly for the leader, who combines boppish phrases, an unexpected smear, and a flowing construction in a splendid and very hip invention.
From there, the program continues on its merry way, full of joy and full of risk. "Just Say This" is a brooding reflection on 9/11 and its aftermath. "Seventeen" is a spirited and complex construction in which the improvisers must negotiate a series of rhythmic change-ups that includes a fast vamp, some stop-time, and some bracing 4/4 swing at medium and fast tempos, all the while making a set of sophisticated chord changes. Potter, who just keeps getting better and better, really shines on this piece. "Mountains From The Train" is an aptly-titled tone poem, evoking a steam engine slowly chugging its way up a steep slope, through the fog, gently pushed on by Frisell's guitar pings and Penn's mallet rhythms.
And so the program proceeds. The compositions, all by Douglas, are at once varied and provocative. There's no safety net in these compositions. And the musicians rise to the occasion. Chris Potter is playing so well these days it's almost frightening. His solo on "Catalyst" displays fierce aggression and a buzz-saw tone, while on "Just Say This" he is appropriately mournful. Frisell absolutely shines. He loves to play, and he brings that feeling to this album as he revels in the variety and challenge of this music. The rhythm section is cohesive, even telepathic, and incidentally, brilliantly recorded.
This CD is already one of the high points of this very young year.
A Single Sky, Strange Liberation, Skeeter-ism, Just Say This, Seventeen, Mountains From The Train, Rock Of Billy, The Frisell Dream, Passing Through, The Jones, Catalyst.
Dave Douglas, trumpet; Chris Potter, tenor sax and bass clarinet; Uri Caine, electric piano; James Genus, acoustic and electric basses; Clarence Penn, drums; Bill Frisell, guitar.
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