Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

So Dave Douglas's new album, Spirit Moves, is a real beauty. Released two weeks ago on Douglas's own Greenleaf label, Douglas's Brass Ecstasy is a compact and funky unit that mixes trumpet (Douglas), trombone (Luis Bonilla), french hornist Vincent Chaney, the inimitable tubist Marcus Rojas, and Nasheet Waits on drums. The tunes are often harmonically straightforward (compared to some of Douglas's more extended outings) and resonate on a certain New Orleans vibe, but they are never simplistic, and the New Orleans sense of counterpoint gets a compelling facelift.

Like many composers of his generation (also--what's with the jazz world's labeling of anyone who isn't 60 yet as a "young" musician?!) Douglas is exploring texture, vibe, rhythm, and groove rather than compulsively overloading his tunes with extensions and licks. I don't often get all ravey about a recording instantly (actually, that's a lie: I get all evangelical about recordings I like the second I hear them, which is part of why I started this blog), but for the last week, I've been finding small little charms in these arrangements, that can sound more intimate than--and much larger than--five men depending on the context.

Too bad I downloaded this on iTunes. These tunes are so great that a forward-thinking brass quintet/quartet might want to tackle them. I'm thinking of picking up the charts: for $40, you can download the sheet music and recordings from Greenleaf. This way, you can support great music on the one hand, learn it from the inside, and not be tempted to email Dave Douglas's manager to see if you can get a copy of the charts. (I haven't done this, but know of more than a few jazz stalkers out there...)

The album starts off with an arrangement of Rufus Wainright's This Love Affair that sounds like a most impassioned dirge version of St. James Infirmary for which Bach wrote the inner voices. Much of this has to do with Wainright's original harmonization--here's a video of it:



It's a very beautiful tune, but with Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy, it takes on a certain ritualistic quality, and--on the climactic turnaround--Rufus Wainright's beautiful melodic figures soar in Douglas's high range, which of late has sounded so easy and soaring that it's like the most moving infomercial for the Caruso method. And the voicing of the ensemble makes what was affecting in Wainright's hair-raising. Pay special attention to the french horn lines:



Here's another video with Douglas discussing how the group functions as a chamber ensemble, followed by "The View from Blue Mountain," a latin piece with a six-feel. Pay particular attention to how much harmony (and how richly the harmony) jumps out when there's no comping instrument:



My other favorites on the album? Orujo, a syncopated romp with some in-the-pocket french horn offbeats; The Brass Ring, that moves out of a lovely chorale into an impossibly slow, tight vamp midway; Great Awakening, an allusive kaleidescope of hymnody (I heard aspects of Just a Closer Walk and Silver Bells, but I'm probably missing a few obvious ones) that's Douglas's funniest tune since Elk's Club; Mister Pitiful, the Otis Redding tune; Bowie, a funky nod to the legendary Lester.

A bit before I picked up Spirit Moves, I read a Sasha Frere-Jones piece in the New Yorker on the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. A true band of brothers--sons of AACM co-founder/Sun Ra trumpeter Phil Cochran. I just picked up their label debut on iTunes and have been sorting through it. It's great groove music, almost all insistent, in minor key, very tight, and more ahead-of-the-beat than today's crop of New Orleans-style brass bands (which you shouldn't expect them to sound like). They're doing their own thing, and have a keen business sense after parlaying street success (literally--in Times Square, and on Chicago's South Side) with web word-o-mouth and now a successful European tour being chronicled in a frank, funny, and frequently updated blog.



"We could set up in a blackout, on a boat, plane, wherever." Love it. Reminds me of Green Eggs and Ham.

Don't expect jazz, per se: these are tunes to grab you, shake you, and put you down again in time for you to catch your train, but it's all very, very tight and a new direction. If you follow them on the web a bit, you'll find out that they--like Douglas, and the AACM, for that matter--are very commited to taking control of the commercial aspect of their music. I suspect we'll be seeing a whole lot of them in the future. Go to their myspace for clips.

If I had to recommend one download from their new album so far, it would probably be Jupiter, an irresistible space-age vamp that lays out a bit longer that some of their other tunes and sounds like the bridge from the theme from Shaft looped by Roy Hargrove overdubbing himself and playing against his own delay--except that it's all acoustic and tight. I'm sure a national tour is right around the corner, so stay tuned.

More later.