This article first appeared in the Baltimore Jazz Alliance Newsletter
It was capacity seating in the listening room with the high-back chairs on Charles Street in Baltimore, but that did not deter the trumpeter, composer, band leader, and record label founder Dave Douglas from squeezing in a couple of extra audience members. He simply toted from the back of the room a few folding chairs and placed them onstage with him. After all, this was to be a concert of piano and trumpet duets, so there was some extra room up there. Amused and in good spirits, Douglas mounted the stage, called up his musical partner, pianist Uri Caine, and recalled for the audience what the late pianist Horace Silver had told him when Douglas worked with the composer early in his career. Horace Silver said that if one wants to be a jazz musician and one wants to hit a homerun, one must be prepared to play the role of: pitcher, batter, outfielder fielding the ball, catcher receiving the throw home, vendor selling popcorn in the stands, and finally the umpire calling the play at the plate.
“Chaos was first,
but next appeared broad-bosomed Earth,
sure standing place for all the gods.”
-- Hesiod’s Theogeny (c. 1000 B.C.E., contemporary of Homer)
Silver’s advice was not just a dose of reality administered to a young jazz musician, his words also touch upon the the essence of the music played that Saturday night in July in Mount Vernon. The duo played pieces adapted from and inspired by the songbooks of the shape-note singing tradition -- a collection of songs based on a simplified form of musical notation which has its roots in Europe, but which flourished first among the New England colonists and later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, throughout the rural South. The tradition encompasses songs both religious and secular and is practiced in both African-American and European American communities and in the places where these communities meet. In their lyrics and in their melodies alternatively stark and bright, the songs etch a portrait of the meeting of the spiritual and the material realms of life. As is suggested by Horace Silver’s words of counsel to a young trumpeter: to reach great heights, one must work hard on the ground. And as Hesiod’s verse above suggests: it is here on Earth that we encounter spirit.
Shape-note singing has very different roots from those of the many jazz “standards” -- with their catchy, bittersweet melodies perched over sophisticated chord changes -- that were originally written for Broadway or MGM musicals. However, Dave Doulas and Uri Caine demonstrated at An die Musik that the shape-note tradition may prove to be a very deep well for jazz musicians to draw from. The songs in the show typically began with simple, almost march-like piano chord phrases, over which Dave Douglas would play a stately melody from the shape-note tradition. (For those readers unfamiliar with these songs, your closest melodic reference point may be the much more widely known Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” adapted by Aaron Copeland for his score for the ballet Appalachian Spring). From there, Douglas and Caine employed the jazz aesthetics of improvisation, rhythmic syncopation and harmonic extension to the hymns and laments.
Uri Caine, a pianist who has released several albums of his fiercely individualistic interpretations of classical composers such as Gustav Mahler and Ricard Wagner and albums which fuse jazz with drum n’ bass and hip-hop rhythms, is an excellent choice by Douglas for the shape-note singing concept. His style can be both precise and free. His attack on the piano can go from clipped-sounding Glen Gould-style classical rigor to highly percussive blues and boogie woogie. True to his heritage as a longtime member of the downtown New York jazz scene headed by maverick and genre-hybridizing composers like John Zorn and Marc Ribot, Caine often played against the melody, deconstructing it and seeming to oppose it -- before returning to a well-defined articulation of it. The effect was thrilling.
Dave Douglas has a long history of drawing inspiration from folk music forms. Notable in his oevure in this respect is the 2000 recording Charms of the Night Sky -- featuring a quartet of trumpet, violin, accordion, and bass -- which explores Eastern European and Jewish folk melodies. More recent is his 2012, Be Still -- featuring his current jazz quintet, plus the Appalachian vocalist Aofie O’Donovan –- a recording which contains six American folk hymns that Douglas’ mother requested he play at her funeral in 2011. His performance at An die Musik made it clear why he is attracted to these old, land-based musical forms. They come from a time of oral traditions and community singing events. As such, they are imbued with the struggles of everyday people; with their hopes, their longings and their moments of spiritual transcendence. They serve as an excellent template for Douglas to seek spirit through the plaintive voice of his trumpet.