Jazz isn’t afraid to mix it up with other kinds of music, and certainly an artist as bold as trumpeter Dave Douglas isn’t going to shy away from stylistic collision. Douglas’s earlier work mixed jazz with Balkan music, film music, brass band elements, electronics—so what’s the big deal in taking on a set of hymns or many elements of folk music?
Be Still is a triumph, a beauty, a revelation. It’s as a good a jazz record as 2012 is likely to produce—and maybe it’s not quite a jazz record at all.
First, this is a record of crystalline quiet. O’Donovan sings gently, with a soft and often breathy approach. She’s no stranger to this kind of artistic fusion, having sung with the Wayfaring Strangers, Matt Glaser’s trailblazing mixture of jazz, bluegrass and klezmer, and being the main voice of Crooked Still, a hip “newgrass” outfit. Douglas’s arrangements in support of her are full of space and gentle care. On “Barbara Allen”, for example, Douglas starts by deploying O’Donovan’s voice as a wordless instrument in a chorale written out for trumpet, saxophone, piano, bowed bass, and voice. The lyrics are then supported by a very spare set of statements by the horns only, then horns and piano. O’Donovan is given lengths of as much as eight slow bars to sing without accompaniment, making the reentry to the quiet instrumental work that much more dramatic.
Not that drummer Rudy Royston has no role here. His tuneful cymbal work on “Be Still My Soul” is essential to balancing the performance. But his role on this tune is hardly that of a typical jazz drummer. Mainly, he performs as colorist, filling the atmosphere around the carefully phrased melody with a series of pings and shimmers, flinging sparks around the grounding provided by bassist Linda Oh and the transparent piano work of Matt Mitchell. Later, as Douglas takes the disc’s first improvised solo, Royston begins playing loose time, which builds to be even more dramatic under the tenor saxophone solo by Jon Irabagon. This track is arguably a masterpiece, and Royston is a critical reason for that.
But Douglas uses the band different ways on different tracks. “High on the Mountain” is essentially a bluegrass tune, and he uses a horn arrangement on the chorus that sets up the kind of drone that a different band would get out of a fiddle. Royston plays a highly syncopated train beat under the verse while the leader plays a flowing jazz counterpoint to the vocal melody. On “God Be With You”, however, the trumpet takes the first reading of the melody, loosely, setting up the stately hymn as a kind of jazz ballad. After O’Donovan’s statement of the melody, the horns come in together with a wholly separate melody that launches Irabagon into a short but surging improvisation. Each of the approaches seems just right for its tune.
Read the full review for this amazing album here: Dave Douglas Quintet: Be Still