When trumpeter Dave Douglas debuted his latest quintet a couple of years ago with the wonderful album Be Still (Greenleaf), a big part of its repertoire was composed of hymns and folk songs his mother had requested to be played at her memorial service—at the time, in 2011, she knew she was losing a three-year battle with ovarian cancer. On that recording the horn man enlisted the services of the superb singer Aoife O’Donovan of the progressive bluegrass outfit Crooked Still. But that project wasn’t the first time Douglas had been absorbed by American religious music. In the late 80s, while he toured with the Bread and Puppet Theater, he first heard and became interested in shape notes, a simple form of notation developed to allow untrained vocalists to tackle sacred music in striking four-part harmonies.
Working with hymns for Be Still prodded him to put his own spin on shape-note singing (often called Sacred Harp music, for a songbook of the same name), and on Present Joys (Greenleaf), his superb new duo album with pianist Uri Caine, he does just that, combining five shape-note classics with five new original pieces. Caine, with whom Douglas worked in an older version of his quintet as well as in some of the pianist’s own projects, was an excellent choice, as few musicians have so imaginatively merged jazz with source material as disparate as Mahler, Mozart, and Bach and Brazilian songs, Philly soul, and early repertoire from Tin Pan Alley.
On Present Joys the duo push the material in various directions without strain: on the title piece, for example, the theme is stated with dry, tender reverence, but after that the performance shifts swiftly and smoothly into a bluesy jazz feel, utterly changing the complexion of the lovely melody. (In his solo Douglas slyly quotes from Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time.”) Douglas’s own “Supplication” taps into the stately vibe of the traditional material with an exquisitely paced, pensive meditation. Some of the material does depart from the general tone, such as the witty “End to End,” a postmodern series of false endings woven together that makes the actual final notes especially pregnant. “Ham Fist” reflects its inspiration in the trumpeter’s kitchen, with Caine playing choppy chords that suggest a piece of meat getting hacked up.
Below you can check out the album’s gorgeous opening piece, “Soar Away,” a Sacred Harp number by A.M. Cagle that gives full range to Caine’s proclivities for European classical music. The melody is devastating in its melancholy beauty, with the pianist summoning the spirit of Bach in his rhythmically precise phrases while Douglas improvises on the theme with characteristic fluency and grace.
Helge Hurum, Spectre: the Unreleased Works 1971-1982 (Plastic Strip Press)
Barbara Romen/Kai Fagaschinski/Gunter Schneider, Here Comes the Sun (Mikroton)
John Fahey & His Orchestra, Of Rivers and Religion (Collector’s Choice Music/Warner Bros.)
Elizabeth Cotten, Shake Sugaree (Smithsonian Folkways)
Peggy Lee Band, Invitation (Drip Audio)