Trumpeter Dave Douglas emerged in the 1980s with soul-jazz piano star Horace Silver, a glitzy but generic intro that hardly suggested the prize-strewn career he would forge as an improviser, composer and all-round enabling dynamo. He has since traversed John Zorn’s free-jazz-meets-klezmer Masada group, explored his own jazz, classical, world-musical and contemporary dance and non-western projects, and paid heartfelt and thoughtful tributes to his influences: Björk, Thom Yorke, Wayne Shorter, jazz composer Mary Lou Williams and more. Devotion – to musical, personal, political and cultural inspirations – is always the name of his game. Most Dave Douglas albums could own that title, one way or another.
He’s devoted himself here to the 200-year-old Sacred Harp tradition of a cappella hymn singing, an improv-spurring source he often shares with idiom-hopping virtuoso pianist Uri Caine – now also joined by former Cecil Taylor drummer Andrew Cyrille. The playing is intimate, mutually responsive, rhythmically capricious but often genially swinging, too. The darting, dancing theme of Douglas’s Curly (dedicated to comedy legends the Three Stooges) dissolves and reappears amid free-jazzy chord-jabs and hissing percussion; Francis of Anthony merges Sacred Harp nuances in Douglas’s voicelike deep-register hum and a gracefully descending, Kenny Wheeler-like theme. Douglas devotes Miljøsang and False Allegiances (respectively a slow-funky dance and an early New Orleans-inflected tango) to Carla Bley, and the springy theme and stride-swing grooves of Rose and Thorn to Mary Lou Williams. The closing 1918 Sacred Harp theme becomes full-on three-way free jazz, but its hymnal origins are always present. Intensely personal, maybe, but very far from a private discussion.
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Devotion also applies to Sweet Little Mystery (Fallen Angel), a tribute to the late UK folk singer/songwriter John Martyn, conceived by the great UK vocalist Sarah Jane Morris and guitar partner Tony Rémy. Morris’s sweeping range and soul roots warm Martyn’s sometimes bleakly tender love songs, and the wild, hard-rocking, vocally imploring finale is a tour de force. Brad Mehldau’s Biblical Finding Gabriel (Nonesuch) is a rich electronic/orchestral conception, with guest celebs including trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, and singers Becca Stevens and Kurt Elling. Mehldau’s signature catchy hooks are there, the painterly electronic textures are often entrancing, and drummer Mark Guiliana is a firebrand, but Mehldau’s weighty agenda may sit a bit heavily on top of the classy participants for some.