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The Dezron Douglas Quartet In A Holiday Mood At Miller Theater

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The Dezron Douglas Quartet
Miller Theater,
In a Holiday Mood
New York, NY
December 2, 2023

Holiday-season jazz concerts too often lean on the same old formula. Some swinging arrangements of hoary hymns, perhaps a dip into the Vince Guaraldi Trio Charlie Brown Christmas, and the near-inevitable inclusion of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," virtually the only legit jazz standard in the traditional holiday songbook.

Kudos, then, to the adventurous Miller Theater for commissioning a rising force in jazz to compose a substantial new holiday work. Holidaze Suite by bassist and composer Dezron Douglas formed a fine centerpiece of In a Holiday Mood, the Columbia University venue's seasonal offering.

In his remarks introducing the work, Douglas talked about being excited at the commission, but also wanting it to avoid the "cliches" of holiday music. His Holidaze Suite accomplished that. Performed with Douglas's regular quartet, the half-hour-long trio of pieces often evoked the warmth of the season but was never sentimental or directly evocative of the holiday musical canon.

Douglas managed that balance through seeding Holidaze with appealing melodic figures while still allowing lots of time—in places, perhaps a little too much time—for the quartet to stretch out within the themes. Though the Douglas pieces are different in tone from the classic Vince Guaraldi material, their melodicism makes it possible to envision one or two of them co-existing in concert with those chestnuts, perhaps in less expansive arrangements than Douglas's.

The suite's dominant voice was the fine saxophone work of Emilio Modeste, who alternated between tenor and soprano instruments. As a restrained player who commands attention more through lyricism than powerful dynamic peaks, Modeste was an apt frontman for this work. His solos sustained an appropriate sense of structure and restraint, including in the occasional passages where Holidaze ventured away from harmonic calm and into more challenging territory. In those "out-er" moments, drummer Joe Dyson came to the fore. Dyson can be a forceful, even noisy, player when needed, but he modulated his approach well throughout the work, never stepping on the spirit of the pieces.

Pianist George Burton showed the same sensitivity. He alternated between tinkling electric piano and rippling arpeggios on an acoustic grand, the latter often driving up the musical temperature, especially when he was soloing.

For all these fine contributions, Douglas very much led the quartet. His pulsing playing drove along the ensemble work, and he allowed himself several burbling, though never showy, solos on the upright.

Before the Holidaze suite, Douglas and company began the evening with a few originals from Atalaya (International Anthem Recording Company, 2022), their recording debut as a quartet. These selections were generally more muscular than the suite, although they showcased the same distinctive roles for each player as well as Douglas's strengths as a writer —namely his skill in anchoring pieces around short and catchy recurring melodic figures.

In its second half, the program abruptly switched gears, with Douglas strapping on an electric bass—the instrument he plays in his parallel career as a member of the Trey Anastasio Band, led by the guitarist for jamband Phish. Douglas also welcomed to the bandstand Nick Cassarino who played effects-laden electric guitar, along with Douglas's vocalist brother, Alton. The two brothers sang together on "Righteousness," an overlong (around 13 minutes) gospelish composition that Douglas said he wrote last Christmas, and on a funky tribute song dedicated to fellow bassist George Porter Jr. a longtime member of New Orleans' legends The Meters.

Douglas also played his longest solo of the program, alone on stage and on the electric instrument. It included the night's only reference to familiar holiday music—a snippet of "Do You Hear What I Hear?"—along with a nod to his jamband side through a snippet from Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia's "Rubin and Cherise."

With its shifts in style and mood, the final hour came over as long and slightly muddled, as well as a missed opportunity, given the show's theme. The latter was underlined when Douglas re-introduced Burton, pointing out that the keyboardist had just released "a fine Christmas album, Yule Log." While that project mostly comprises vocal numbers, presumably Burton might have retooled a few of its selections for the quartet. Those additions, or just about anything else that was seasonal, would have yielded a show that better lived up to being In A Holiday Mood—and more fully sustained the quality of the Holiday Suite.

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