Without even considering Messrs. Marsalis, Crouch, Burns, and the rest of the idiom’s conservative wing, a casual listener could easily conclude that present-day jazz is stuck in the past. All he’d have to do would be viddy last year’s tallies. Two of 2003’s most crit-lauded discs, Wayne Shorter’s classy, intelligent Alegría and Miroslav Vitous’ icy, timeless Universal Syncopations, were recorded by veterans of Weather Report’s first lineup, a group that peaked during the Nixon administration. Last year’s big breakout, muscular piano trio the Bad Plus, cribbed a page from the ’60s crossover playbook, scoring with covers of rock hits. And Blue Note’s biggest seller, Norah Jones, is essentially a torch singer in the ’70s mold, notching up the comparisons to Billie Holiday but sounding more like Rickie Lee Jones or Joni Mitchell.
But then there’s Dave Douglas. The 40-year-old New Yorker isn’t underground, or even all that new to the scene: He’s amassed trumpeter-, composer-, and artist-of-the-year props from the big jazz mags as well as a Grammy nomination for 2002’s The Infinite. Yet Douglas is one of a handful of headline-grabbing artists making jazz that couldn’t have been made 10 years back—much less 20, 30, or 40. The trumpeter’s electronics-heavy 2003 disc, Freak In, which also showed up on plenty of best-of lists, is a perfect example: a post-everything mash-up that forces Kind of Blue modalism to confront foreign forms—rock, techno, hiphop, and Indian classical—while still respecting the sacred concept of swing. Jazz plus whatever is obviously nothing new, but Freak In is the first disc I’ve heard that achieves any aesthetic success mixing jazz-qua-jazz with rhythmically rigid drum-machine or sample-based popular music. (Sorry, Matthew Shipp.) And it sounds absolutely present-tense.
Of course, Douglas, like John Zorn, his boss in Masada, is a protean guy. The overachiever has no fewer than 14 working projects, including the Balkan-modernist Tiny Bell Trio, the drum-free chamber-jazz ensemble Charms of the Night Sky, and a Thelonious Monk–covers act with Holland’s premier avant-gardists, pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink. So naturally, Douglas’ Freak In follow-up, the new Strange Liberation—his 21st disc as a leader and second with his quintet—behaves nothing like its predecessor: Gone is the thick, nonspontaneous post-production, which has been replaced by a more traditional live-in-the-studio approach.
That might sound pretty retro, but construction issues aside, it’s likely that neither of Douglas’ recent records would exist without the late-’90s critical reappraisal of Miles Davis’ once-vilified electric period—not to mention the emergence of acid jazz and triphop. Indeed, both Strange Liberation’s short opener, “A Single Sky,” and the longer title track flip the switch like Fillmore East all over again: Pianist Uri Caine pounds out wide, Hancockesque chords, guest guitarist Bill Frisell plays bluesy, McLaughlin-style runs, and drummer Clarence Penn cracks some Tony Williams– with–a– brand–new–copy– of–Kick Out the Jams snare-and-kick interplay.
Douglas is clearly using his band’s electrified sound to signify a particular era—the Fender Rhodes is the real giveaway, seeing as how it was ultimately deemed nondynamic by serious keyboardists. Yet the intent here isn’t nostalgia. There’s too much else going on; too much that has nothing to do with Miles. Besides, Douglas’ best defense against any Miles slags is Strange Liberation’s solid melodic core. Even when the band nails the Prince of Darkness’ tantric vibe, the not-quite-raucous jams have something electric Miles often didn’t: structure and hooks.
In other words, Strange Liberation is less about history than panhistory. “Skeeter-ism,” for example, comes off like Dixieland futurism, with Caine and Frisell laying electric lines under Chris Potter’s zigzagging chicory-coffee clarinet. “Mountains From the Train,” by contrast, evolves from Sonic Youth guitar noise to post-cool minimalism, helped along by the warm, round tones of Douglas and Potter (this time on tenor saxophone). And the Frisell showcase “Rock of Billy” veers from slick Naked City blues to upside-down Ornette Coleman harmolodics to husky Sonny Rollins bop in the opening minute alone. The rest of the track seemingly pulls in at least a dozen directions at once—which is just what Douglas claims good jazz is supposed to do.
In the end, that’s why there’s nothing all that significant about Douglas’ choice of instrumentation beyond the acknowledgment that jazz-rock synthesis is just another part of his genre’s vocabulary. As a statement of where jazz should go next, Strange Liberation is sotto voce—just a whisper or a nod. But Douglas’ argument comes through loud and clear: When there’s so much to be done in the here and now, there’s no point in getting hung up on any one idea of the past.
Like Douglas, New York’s Claudia Quintet is both comfortable with fusion and allergic to orthodoxies. But despite Claudia’s electricity-free instrumentation—reeds, accordion, vibes, bass, and drums—I, Claudia, the band’s second full-length, is a lot more rockcentric than Strange Liberation. You can credit that to John Hollenbeck: The first sound on the record is the composer/
leader/drummer’s half-funk, half-postpunk breakbeat, which remains in an off-kilter holding pattern throughout the entirety of the lead-off track, “Just Like Him.” Hollenbeck calls Claudia Quintet “party music for smart people”—which, aside from being kind of pretentious, isn’t that far off the mark.
Not that Claudia is gonna dethrone the Neptunes—or, for that matter, even register with the folks buying Bad Plus and Norah Jones discs. But if the point is creating something more pop-accessible than the typical trot-out-the-chops blowing set, then Hollenbeck & Co. have done it. “Opening” and the unfortunately titled “Misty Hymen,” for example, pair Hollenbeck’s finessed rock beats with the band’s atmospheric, Konitz-cool pulses—though this is hardly jazz as usual plus hip beats. Aside from clarinetist and saxophonist Chris Speed, who is a Douglas alumnus and the leader of Pachora, Claudia is basically all rhythm section. And it sounds like it, too: Bassist Drew Gress offers up big, chewy globs of throb; vibraphonist Matt Moran grooves his way through diced-up, sideways arpeggios; and accordion player Ted Reichman taps his keys as anxiously as a telegraph operator under the gun.
Even Speed plays a largely rhythmic role. On “Adowa,” a song named after a West African funeral dance, the multi-instrumentalist sticks to simple, doo-woppy sax riffs and runs them through a handful of melancholic chord changes. And on “‘Arabic,’” which sounds more minimalist-classical than Middle Eastern, Speed’s clarinet chirps lock into the song’s gamelan drumming, becoming all but lost in the contrapuntal maze.
“‘…Can You Get Through This Life With a Good Heart?’” is the disc’s only exception to the percussive gush, a track that doesn’t sound much like jazz or rock, much less any kind of party music. The title references a Joni Mitchell quotation, but the song, Hollenbeck has said, is a tip of the porkpie to avant-garde composer Morton Feldman. Much to its detriment, the first two-thirds of the homage—a near-ambient collection of rising tones and timbral variations—veers a bit closer to plagiarism. Things get more original—and a lot more interesting—when Hollenbeck and Gress introduce some slow, Jazz Messengers–meets– Dr. Dre grits ’n’ soul, at which point the cut becomes an odd yet cool fusion of 20th-century classical and low-rider funk.
Hollenbeck’s compositions are at their best at moments like this, when he’s trying out musical combinations that maybe haven’t been tried before. Claudia’s label and at least one writer have attempted to connect the quintet to the postrock movement, but as rockist as the quintet is—and despite the occasional excursion into Tortoise territory—that tag just doesn’t fit. Neither do most others: Claudia is too idiomatically ambiguous, too open to influence. But let’s call the group jazz anyway—it’s got the right instrumentation, after all. And jazz, more than most genres, needs a band like Claudia. CP