Greenleaf Music GRE-03

Taking up the cudgel for the innovative talents of silent movie comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (1887-1933), trumpeter Dave Douglas has, in the process, managed to produce a CD that’s both descriptive and distinctive.

Packed with a DVD of one complete and one excerpt from two 1915 films Arbuckle directed and starred in for the Keystone production company – hence the title – Douglas has not only composed new underscores, but 11 notable themes that easily stand on their own. That’s a good thing too, for despite the trumpeter’s brief for the technological prowess of Arbuckle, whose career was tragically cut short following 1920s Hollywood’s first celebrity trial, the physical comedy appears pretty primitive and overdone, viewed 90 years later.

The music is another matter, especially since Douglas utilizes the textures available from two early 21st Century favorites – Jamie Saft’s electric piano and DJ Olive’s turntables – to punch up the accompaniment for these early 20th Century films. The other musicians are saxophonist Marcus Strickland, Brad Jones on bass and Gene Lake on drums.

Moving languidly through the tracks, the sextet provides a modernized, unfussy take on the modal-invoked Herbie Hancock-Miles Davis style of the mid-1970s, with reverb pulsations, backbeat snaps and pops from the drummer and frequent double counterpoint from the horns. Also, considering Douglas’ history with Masada, there’s just the barest hint of Klezmer inflections on the first track.

Thankfully, as well, Olive’s turntablisms are effectively unobtrusive and meld gracefully with the other sounds. Occasionally you may hear conversation snatches or bestial yelps bubbling from the polyphony. It’s to the DJ’s credit that you’ve never sure whether to connect murkier sounds to his implements of choice, feathery electric piano runs and oscillating trills from Saft – who has his own history with Electric Masada – or measures from Lake’s drum kit. In the past, Lake has recorded with alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill, while Jones was a participant in a CD with Douglas, pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink.

Arcs of splayed triplets or Harmon-muted impressionism make it easy to identify Douglas, whose muted grace notes and low-key trills produce an openly impressionistic portrait of “Mabel Normand”, practically the only one of Arbuckle’s co-stars who stuck by him after the 1921 scandal. Building up double tonguing and flying triplets in carefully measured steps on “Famous Players”, Douglas’ acidic tone coupled with slurred sax lines from Strickland and gaunt pulsations from Saft’s Wurlitzer reflect the trumpet’s contempt for the studio bosses of the day.

Strickland, who seems to move among alto, tenor and soprano saxophones, can vamp when needed or produce moderato trills if the tune calls for it. Ditto for Saft, who makes the most out of tinkling electric piano ostinatos.

Reaching both his accompaniment and creative sound goals with KEYSTONE, it looks like Douglas will now have to look for new worlds to conquer.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. A Noise From The Deep 2. Just Another Murder 3. Sapphire Sky Blue 4. Butterfly Effect 5. Fatty's Day Off 6. Mabel Normand 7. The Real Roscoe 8. Famous Players 9. Barnyard Flirtations 10. Hollywood 11. Tragicomique

Personnel: Dave Douglas (trumpet); Marcus Strickland (alto, tenor and soprano saxophones); Jamie Saft (electric piano); Brad Jones (bass); Gene Lake (drums); DJ Olive (turntables)