Mountain Passages
Greenleaf Music GRE-01

Focused around moods and memory, trumpeter Dave Douglas’ 22nd recording – and first on his own label – cements his reputation as the most accomplished mainstream trumpeter around.

Unlike a certain other famous brassman who spends his time looking backwards to what jazz was, Douglas is forward looking enough in his playing and composing, to adapt other influences, from European folk airs to contemporary classical sounds,. At the same time, like most of the CDs he’s made recently, the 13 melodic and muted themes on the CD won’t upset even the most casual jazz listener. If that unnamed trumpeter and his Young Lions hadn’t retarded the improvisation tradition so, the minute deviations from 4/4 swing and blues tonalities here wouldn’t be heard as far out. Douglas may play often with John Zorn, but MOUNTAIN PASSAGES is nowhere near experimental sounds.

Resulting from a commission from a Northern Italian festival in the Dolomites, for music to be played following a mountain hike to an elevation spot between 9,000 and 12,000 feet, the sounds serve a double function. Drawing on the area’s local Ladino music, the trumpeter adapts both its devotional calmness and the riotous celebration that characterize it. At the same time Douglas’ themes are intended to honor his father, a mountain runner and mapmaker, who died within a month of the recording, never having heard it.

One piece, “North Point Memorial”, a picturesque, chamber-like number, is specifically dedicated to his father. Built on Peggy Lee’s moderato cello lines and cymbal reverberation from drummer Dylan van der Schyff, the theme and variations depend on chromatic, contrapuntal harmonies from clarinetist Moore and Douglas’ trumpet. As the adagio theme unfolds, it’s given additional heft by accompaniment in broken chords from Marcus Rojas’ tuba.

Husband and wife Vancouverites, Lee and Van Der Schyff have recorded with the trumpeter elsewhere and are part of the faulty at the Banff [Alberta] International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, where Douglas is director. They also play internationally and in their hometown with the pick of improv musicians. Rojas, on the faculty at New York University, is better known for his contributions to reedist Henry Threadgill’s bands. The only non-part-time academic, Moore, who plays bass clarinet and alto saxophone here, is a Californian turned Amsterdam resident, with a long-time tenure in Holland’s influential ICP Orchestra.

“A Nasty Spill”, the most liberated composition here reflects that blend of classicism, folklore and jazz that characterize European ensembles like the ICP or Gianluigi Trovesi’s Octet. Episodic and thematic, with an underscore which sounds as if it was lifted from “Minnie the Moocher”, the tune features twirling clarinet lines, tuba burps, and rim shots and nerve beats from Van Der Schyff. While all this is going on Douglas unleashes triplets that could zip along mountain trails as quickly as his father could run on them. Semi-growls and slurs from the trumpet as well as a call-and-response section between the strings and higher-pitched horns characterize the final variation.

One of the most self-effacing of leaders, Douglas sometimes seems like a sideman on his own dates. He never hogs the microphone, and gives every one his or her fair shot at solo space. An outstanding arranger nonetheless, he voices the instruments in such a way that the harmonies are full and inclusive, making it sound as if a larger ensemble is playing on many of the tracks,

Mixing Romay, Latin, dance-like and brass band infections, other tunes featuring Moore’s liquid clarinet tone, Douglas’ rubato variations and Rojas’ tuba pedal point could be Italianized Dixieland – especially when the drummer plays a shuffle. Still others, like “Cannonball Run”, which features the trumpeter’s showiest and most open-horned solo, mixes a percussion-lead Second Line Shuffle with almost formal, Europeanized alto saxophone lines wrapped within stop-time.

Drawing both on solemn devotional calmness of Ladino sounds and Anglo-Saxon understatement that’s part of the brass man’s heritage, several of the other numbers resemble dumps – not garbage repositories but melancholy old English dances, usually in 4/4 time. Here adagio movements from the cellist are used to color these lamentations, which are kept fully grounded by a contrapuntal funereal tuba line. The matter-of-factness is such that even if the piece bears a picturesque title such as “Bury Me Standing”, Douglas’ solos, more often than not are lightly legato, not overwrought.

Anyone interested in a first-class CD that matches the best of European continuity with the freedom of the exemplary improvised music should investigate MOUNTAIN PASSAGES. There’s very little hard climbing here despite the source of the commission.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Summit Music 2. Family of the Climber 3. Gnarly Schnapps 4. Gumshoe 5. Twelve Degrees Proof 6. North Point Memorial 7. Cannonball Run 8. Palisades 9. A Nasty Spill 10. Purple Mountains Majesty 11. Off Major 12. Bury Me Standing 13. Encore: All Is Forgiven

Personnel: Dave Douglas (trumpet); Michael Moore (clarinet, bass clarinet, alto saxophone); Marcus Rojas (tuba); Peggy Lee (cello); Dylan van der Schyff (drums)