12 July 2009

Review: Spirit Moves

Dave Douglas
Spirit Moves

Dave Douglas is no stranger to what might be termed (for lack of a better word) "tribute albums," having recorded albums featuring the music of Booker Little and Mary Lou Williams, among others (In Our Lifetime and Soul on Soul, respectively). What makes his tributes unique, though, is that rather than reinterpreting the work of another musician, Douglas prefers to filter the tribute subject's style through his own, in an effort to recreate that subject's sound and persona in a new context. Thus, his "tributes" counterintuitively consist mostly of original material. On his latest album, Spirit Moves, Douglas is again playing with a number of influences in mind, in this case the early-20th century New Orleans brass bands that played a role in the creation of jazz as well as Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy band, which used the brass ensemble as a vehicle for performing all sorts of music, from pop to classical and many points between. Douglas performs here in a brass quartet accompanied by drummer Nasheet Waits.

The music on this album ranges from moments of tightly arranged composition to free-wheeling group improvisation, with Douglas and trombonist Luis Bonilla shouldering a bulk of the soloing duties. The repertoire is similarly varied. The opening track, This Love Affair, features an Eastern European tinge reminiscent of Douglas' Tiny Bell Trio, while Bowie hearkens back to the aforementioned turn-of-the-century New Orleans brass band. Douglas is in high form throughout, consolidating the trademark smears and half-valve effects favored by Bowie into his own thoroughly modern sounds. His arrangements are thoughtful and colorful, taking advantage of the almost limitless sounds made possible by the blending of different brass instruments. This Love Affair uses an oom-pah pattern between the tuba and a combination of French horn and trombone which creates a wonderfully dark backdrop for Douglas' dirge-like lamentations on trumpet.

However, periodically the band reveals why the conventional jazz ensemble evolved without the tuba, opting for the upright bass instead. On tunes like The View From Blue Mountain, in which the tuba provides the rhythmic drive, the band feels somewhat stiff, and I am left wondering if the tune would sound better with a bass instead of the tuba. Anyone who's played a tuba before can attest to the difficulties inherent in playing the types of bass lines Douglas writes on this album. Luckily, though, Douglas included Nasheet Waits, a regular of Jason Moran's trio, on drums for the album. Waits provides a propulsive lightness which often counteracts any moments of excess heaviness in the tuba.

This album might slip through the cracks when it comes time for year-end lists and awards. While it is decidedly unconventional, the album breaks little new ground and might not stand out for any other reason than its unusual instrumentation. However, there are few better ways to spend an afternoon than listening to Douglas' various takes on the history of jazz. For that, this album provides great fodder. You won't be disappointed.

BONUS: Greenleaf Music has posted some studio footage of the band playing The View From Blue Mountain.

Track Listing: This Love Affair; Orujo; The View from Blue Mountain; Twilight of the Dogs; Bowie; Rava; Fats; The Brass Ring; Mister Pitiful; Great Awakening; I'm So Lonesome I Could
Personnel: Dave Douglas, trumpet; Vincent Chancey, French horn; Luis Bonilla, trombone; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums

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