There is an alternate universe someplace where the earthshaking jazz event of 1959 is neither Miles Davis' Kind of Blue nor John Coltrane's Giant Steps (Atlantic Records), but is instead the release of Henry Mancini's The Music From Peter Gunn (RCA Victor). Douglas Lee is probably getting his mail there right now.
Lee's Themes For Falling Down Stairs arrives, sent by his publicist Josh Mills, whose client roster has long been one of the more interesting here in town (Los Angeles). This guy has represented everyone from the Dead Kennedys to Arvo Part, so when he sends, it pays to listen.
If you're a Joe Henderson, Dave Douglas or Kurt Rosenwinkel kind of consumer, look somewhere else. Themes offers very little for fans of the imagination at work in that arena. However, if you own and value records by Joey Altruda (still the heavyweight champ in this realm), Spindrift, Lounge Lizards, Combustible Edison, and Barry Adamson, this is the kind of record that is released all too infrequently. Lee's compositions are largely derived from midcentury film music, where Frank Zappa's aphoristic phrase "make a jazz noise here" applies. But there is a lot more to this than just ersatz bop and noir.
Lee has a diverse background as a composer and player, and he leaves nothing out. Exotic instrumentation (including water glasses, shamisen, koto, theremin, etc), retro synths, and a musical saw are mingled with a jazz rhythm section. His orchestrating is very skilled, too. Unlike so many who throw everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, Lee leads with subtlety, so the combination of sounds is never slips into gratuitous novelty territory, and the compositions themselves are carefully wrought, so he doesn't need to overplay his intention. While he clearly likes a wide sonic palette, there is never any sense that anything is done strictly for effect, even as sound-as-sound characterizes much of the set.
The players on this discsave for the always-compelling violist Heather Lockiemay not be familiar to most. Lockie was previously co-leader of the very original chamber folk ensemble Listing Ship, and whose performances have included everything from prewar folk styles through the the most current avant-garde presentations coming out of L.A. She's someone whose participation always grabs attention.
Since Lee plays the lion's share of the instruments throughout the record, it's not a band record with a lot of jazz interaction. However, because the compositions are so well-planned, that approach wouldn't really fit here. His main instrument is uncertain, because he's on point throughout, on whatever instrument he chooses. Producer Michael Rozon has done a fine job of making sure the details shine through while giving the program a layer of warmth. This is a gorgeous-sounding record.
It will be interesting to see what Lee's next record is. He does a number of things very well, enough so that any one of them could be a direction. Hopefully, he will continue to work with Rozon, because the producer/artist combination as it sounds on this release seems ideal for parties.
Evening Stars Of Cyrangoon;
Raid On The Purple River;
Jeminor's Lost Night In Kakarta;
Jasmine Hover Blossom;
Lucky Money Music.
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