Critic’s Notebook: Dave Douglas’s New Album, ‘Be Still’

September 24th, 2012

Chad Batka for The New York Times

Dave Douglas performing with his quintet Wednesday at 92YTriBeCa.

Dave Douglas dealt sparingly with the emotional back story at 92YTriBeCa on Wednesday night, in the auspicious first outing by his new quintet. During a concert built around the Protestant hymns on his gorgeous and contemplative new album, “Be Still” — due out on Tuesday on Greenleaf, his independent label — Mr. Douglas spoke of his motivation only in passing. The album, he said simply, “came about because all these hymns and songs were songs that my mother recommended that I play.”

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Chad Batka for The New York Times

Dave Douglas, on his property in Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., says his latest album, “Be Still,” is his most personal work.

His mother, Emily Douglas, died in August 2011 after a three-year struggle with ovarian cancer. During her final months, as talk turned to her memorial service, she handed him a list of eight traditional hymns — a poignant commission and in some ways a spiritual bequest.

“She had probably been to more than 200 gigs of mine,” Mr. Douglas, 49, said softly last month at his home, in a densely wooded pocket of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. “She saw every single project, every band, until she was not able to come the last few years. So it wasn’t like she was unaware that my music is coming from another place. And yet she was still like, ‘I want you to go in the church and play these hymns.’ ”

Mr. Douglas, one of the busiest trumpeter-composers in jazz over the last 20 years, grew up one of four children in a household that identified as Christian but acknowledged other systems of belief, from secular philosophy to Sikhism; his faith wasn’t much of a ritual concern for him. “I went to Sunday school at a Presbyterian church until I was 7,” he said. “And that was it.” He grimaced at the suggestion that “Be Still” was his most personal album. “I don’t know if it’s more personal than any of my other records, because they’re all from an incredibly interior place,” he said.

His body of work reflects an inveterate engagement with the world, taking inspiration from literature, politics, dance and film, as well as jazz and new-music traditions. But it doesn’t convey much devotional energy, unless your idea of the divine is Wayne Shorter. Though hardly the iconoclast he has sometimes been made out to be — notably during the late 1990s, when some in the jazz press dimly held him up as a downtown rebuttal to Wynton Marsalis — Mr. Douglas is indeed the type to question any sort of orthodoxy.

He arranged the songs at his mother’s service for a brass ensemble, leaving space for congregational singing, and initially had no further plans for the music. Then, this January, he performed in a concert series in Denver, where he met Aoife O’Donovan, a young singer best known for her progressive-bluegrass band, Crooked Still, and for her guest turn on “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” the most recent Appalachian foray by the virtuoso cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Almost immediately Mr. Douglas began to envision a new, bucolic setting for the songs, with Ms. O’Donovan’s vocals front and center. Since the dissolution of his previous quintet, which enjoyed a roughly decade-long run, he had been testing out his rapport with a succession of adaptable younger players, including the bassist Linda Oh, the saxophonist Jon Irabagon, the pianist Matt Mitchell and the drummer Rudy Royston. These were the musicians he brought into the studio this spring, along with Ms. O’Donovan.

“It’s the first record I’ve ever had a singer on,” Mr. Douglas said. “That’s a big change for me. A bigger change than, you know, bringing in a D.J. or having an electric group or working with strings or collaborating with film or dance.”

What helped was the vision he shared with Ms. O’Donovan, a vocalist of unerring instinct and a product of the contemporary improvisation program at the New England Conservatory. Both conceived of the hymns as folk music, simple but pliable. “Be Still” is a jazz album, but it’s built around a vocal delivery that Mr. Douglas describes as “uninflected.” Ms. O’Donovan added: “For me to step in and sing pretty simply on top of these gorgeously complex arrangements — it’s like resting on a cloud.”

The album opens with “Be Still My Soul,” with a melody borrowed from Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia.” Among the other proper hymns are “God Be With You,” “This Is My Father’s World,” and as a valediction, “Whither Must I Wander?,” which features Mr. Douglas’s horn at its most poetic. Mingled throughout are several other traditional themes, including “Barbara Allen,” a tragic ballad that Mr. Douglas remembers as the first song he ever learned to play, in a school band.

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