Jazz is enjoying its most interesting period since Wynton Marsalis emerged in the early ’80s. When it comes to defining “authentic” jazz, the fan-baffling battle between curatorial tradition and innovation continues, but innovation is winning out, for a change. The conservative Marsalis still ranks as this generation’s most visible and polemical spokesperson for the music, but of the 15 CDs’ worth of material he released last year (yes, 15; he put out a seven-disc box set plus eight separate releases), hardly any left a memorable impression on audiences. But 1999 was a great year for experimental trumpeter Dave Douglas. After the caustic critic Stanley Crouch slammed his unorthodox style at the first annual New York Jazz Awards in 1998, Douglas was honored as artist, composer, and trumpeter of the year at the second annual New York Jazz Awards last year, and he was knighted Jazz Musician of the Year by Jazz Times.
The more adventurous side of jazz is also getting its due in the form of Grammy nominations this year, which include nods to experimental saxophonist Sam Rivers, street-wise hip-bop trumpeter Russell Gunn, and Afro-Asian composer and drummer Anthony Brown. Not to mention that “ecstatic jazz” (the new vogue term for free jazz) saxophonist Ken Vandermark recently won a MacArthur grant for his achievements. But do establishment endorsements of left-of-center jazz represent a refreshing fling or the start of a longer romance? We’ll have to watch the charts and track receipts of Douglas’ latest album, Soul on Soul, his first major-label release. They may tell us whether corporate labels are ready to fully embrace jazz as experimental and soaring as, say, Ornette Coleman’s Skies of America.
With Soul on Soul, Douglas pays vibrant tribute to the late pianist-composer Mary Lou Williams, which will surely pique the interest of those still yearning for songs of the past. The album will also arouse ecstatic-jazz listeners, because it includes some of New York’s most daring players: reedmen Chris Speed and Greg Tardy, bassist James Genus, pianist Uri Caine, trombonist Joshua Roseman, and drummer Joey Baron. The tribute aspect of the new album seems like a marketing strategy designed to draw in as many listeners as possible—big labels are hot for that sort of thing. But, in fact, Soul on Soul represents the latest in a series of personal homages Douglas has made, so far, to trumpeter Booker Little (his greatest influence), saxophonist-composer Wayne Shorter, and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. Like those previous tribute albums, Soul on Soul contains more reverential originals than retooled standards—a gambit that plays to Douglas’ advantage, highlighting his sterling compositions and pre-empting unfair comparisons.
If you associate Williams’ music too closely with the Kansas City-swing and early-bebop eras, you’ll probably approach this tribute, by a trumpeter known for his penetrations of Balkan, klezmer, and avant-garde music, with trepidation. Yet, despite his affiliations with experimentalists such as pianist Myra Melford and saxophonist John Zorn (not to mention his own audacious Tiny Bell Trio), Douglas has never been opaque. His early days with pianist Horace Silver and alto saxophonist Vincent Herring attest to his persuasiveness in straight-ahead bebop. And if those brief encounters don’t give ample proof, Douglas’ albums such as 1998’s Magic Triangle and the newly released Leap of Faith surely will.
Williams’ own compositional scope was as expansive and original as Douglas’. She arranged charts for vintage swing bandleaders Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, and Duke Ellington; advised bop icon Thelonious Monk on piano techniques; and locked heads with avant-garde deity Cecil Taylor in a piano duet performance.
Even so, Soul on Soul doesn’t completely overlap the worlds of Douglas and Williams. It certainly doesn’t attempt to parrot the swing era, although Caine throws in a nifty boogie-woogie piano vignette on Douglas’ title tune. Douglas refrains from dipping too deep into Eastern European rhythms and melodies, although he does slip in a few of his patented knotty, gray-toned figures. Douglas’ and Williams’ sensibilities intersect mostly on the post-bop/avant-garde axis, which is apparent in the rhythm engines of Baron and Genus. The two emphatically boost the velocity of the celebration; Baron drives the ensemble with infectious cymbal rides and thumping polyrhythms, and Genus provides additional swing with his sinewy walking bass lines.
Douglas’ taut tone and nuanced melodies sometimes sound like alto saxophonist Coleman’s brief stints on trumpet. Both have a joyous, asymmetrical rhythm to their playing and a terse lyricism that borders on ugly, yet Douglas also displays a sophisticated level of control. With Speed, Tardy, and Roseman, he can craft bracing harmonies that suggest a large ensemble; elsewhere, the horn section trades funky riffs and heady solos that recall those of Blue Note artists in the mid-’60s. Indeed, with the deep grooves from Baron and Genus and the soulful swagger of Caine’s accompaniment, the music gives off a classic Horace Silver vibe, especially on some of Douglas’ originals, like “Blue Heaven” and Williams’ vivacious “Play It Momma.”
When it comes time to honor Williams’ pioneering arrangements for jump bands like Andy Kirk’s and Jimmie Lunceford’s, Douglas delivers handsomely. His band drives the danceable beats and swirling trumpet and clarinet assuredly on “Aries,” but deconstructs the piece in typical downtown-scene fashion. On Williams’ “Waltz Boogie,” Caine and Genus propel a thumping riff while Baron pounds a hearty drum and Roseman and Douglas deliver rip-roaring solos.
Williams’ extended works, like the Zodiac Suite and Mary Lou’s Mass, come up in Douglas’ wandering “Multiples,” which features Speed’s tenor saxophone channeling the spirit of John Coltrane, and his celestial “Zonish,” in which Caine underpins the swerving horn section with fractured notes. With Baron’s turbulent yet well-controlled rhythmic undercurrent and Speed’s and Douglas’ exalting solos, “Zonish” is the album’s most explicitly avant-garde offering.
Soul on Soul is a far cry from Douglas’ most daring works, but he illuminates a sense of adventure and purpose. And if, by chance, the album becomes a commercial success, it could very well give the big jazz labels another reason to sign artists who veer toward the left side of mainstream. CP
Dave Douglas performs “Rapture to Leon James” and “Five Part Weather Invention” with the Trisha Brown Dance Company as part of the Kennedy Center’s America Dancing series Feb. 17-19 in the Eisenhower Theater.