Meaning & Mystery
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
When Dave Douglas, who is appearing this week at the Village Vanguard, titles an album “Meaning & Mystery,” it’s got to mean something. Where most bands are content to simply play tunes, this trumpeter devotes himself to writing and playing compositions that start in one place and wind up somewhere else entirely,hitting all sorts of unpredictable stops along the way.
A continually experimenting bandleader, Mr. Douglas has participated in free improvisations of various kinds,but his most successful bands feature his talents as a tunesmith, front and center. Such a group is his venerable quintet, which includes Uri Caine on Fender Rhodes electric keyboard, James Genus on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, and a new member, Donny McCaslin, replacing Chris Potter on tenor saxophone.
As if to show the extent to which compositions drive his music, Mr. Douglas recently did something I can’t recall any musician having done before: He simultaneously released two albums with different treatments of the same new compositions. “Meaning & Mystery” (Green Leaf Music) features the quintet,while “Rue de Seine”(Sunnyside) is a set of duets with the French pianist Martial Solal. Both albums share several outstanding new pieces by the trumpeter, including “Elk’s Club” and “Blues to Steve Lacy.”
“Elk’s Club” was the highlight of Mr. Douglas’s late set on Wednesday night at the Vanguard. The song obviously occupies a special place in its composer’s heart: In addition to being heard on both CDs, it was the only tune he actually announced by name at the club. Mr. Douglas said it was inspired by an altercation he got into in Canada with a trio of Elks (that is to say members of the Elks Club), but there are clues aplenty that there’s more to it than that.
The Elks Club was a major early-20th-century social institution, and this song evokes the music of the 1910s and ’20s. The piece is essentially a slow, sultry minor blues, but at the Vanguard, Mr. Douglas played it with exaggerated dynamics and almost comic effects, as well as stop-time breaks that seemed to refer to earlier jazz. He played his solo with a cup mute and extracted all sorts of vaudeville-inspired “talking” effects from the horn. Likewise, Mr. McCaslin’s solo alluded to the slap-tongue style used by early saxophonists. The composer dropped the other shoe when he threw in a recognizable quote from the 1920 Dixieland standard “The Jazz Me Blues,” as well as a stock blues phrase that has turned up in dozens of songs from W. C. Handy to Mary Lou Williams to Elvis Presley.
“Elk’s Club,” though not titled as such, is in fact more of a blues song than “Blues for Steve Lacy.” Another high point of the Vanguard set, the latter song is more in the postmodern dirge tradition. (Credit Ornette Coleman with reviving this slow, somber form, not heard in jazz since early New Orleans funeral parades.) This dedicatory piece to the late saxophonist Steve Lacy also contained fast sections, and like many of the trumpeter’s tunes, it often changed tempos unexpectedly.
By having Mr. Caine play the Fender Rhodes, Mr. Douglas is deliberately referencing the early electronic experiments of Miles Davis, whose influence he cites in the CD liner notes. Though Davis’s “In a Silent Way” is a greater influence than ever on contemporary musicians, Mr. Douglas’s current group also refers to the traditions of bebop, soul jazz, and modal jazz. The song, “The Sheik of Things To Come,” refers to both New Orleans and Ornette Coleman, yet the piece itself was rendered in hard-bop fashion at the Vanguard.
Mr. Douglas didn’t play any standards – the closest he came was when he finished the set with an eight-bar excerpt from “People Will Say We’re in Love” – but the strongest points of “Rue de Seine,” his album with Mr. Solal, are four duets on standards. These follow the example of the deeply probing duets the pianist has played with Lee Konitz. Like the great saxophonist, Mr. Douglas can get enticingly abstract on a well-known tune without abandoning the melody. In his hands, even the most familiar standards are full of meaning and mystery.
For both meaning and mystery, you can’t do much better than the songs of Stephen Sondheim.The great Broadway composer is being celebrated this month at Cafe Carlyle by the award-winning singer and actress Maria Friedman, who has starred in numerous London productions of Sondheim shows.
This is less a one-woman show than a gallery exhibition of Sondheim works, each a depiction of specific characters in a particular time, place, and situation. Ms. Friedman vividly brings each one to life, covering the entire arc of Mr. Sondheim’s career, from juvenilia like “I Must Be Dreaming,” written for a college show, to one of his latest, “Isn’t He Something,” from the 2003 “Bounce.” Ms. Friedman is funny on the “Follies” tongue-twister “Lucy and Jessie” and perfectly embodies an innocent ingenue on “Broadway Baby,” but the big moments are extended medleys from “Sunday in the Park” and “Passion,” in which she and musical director Nicholas Archer boil these scores down into intensely moving musical soliloquies.
Douglas until May 7 (178 Seventh Avenue South, 212-255-4037). Friedman until June 3 (35 E. 76th Street, 212-744-1600).