Dave Douglas told the audience at the Regattabar that the inspiration for his new album, Be Still (Greenleaf), was a challenge from his mother before she died in 2011 — a list of hymns she wanted him to play. "It was laughable at first, then threatening . . . then a possibility." It's hard to think it wasn't always a possibility. The composer and trumpeter places clarity at a premium in his music. Whether he's playing hard bop, funk, or knotty extended forms, the textures are clear, transparent as a mountain stream, ringing and pure as his trumpet tone. So why wouldn't he be drawn to these age-old hymns with their unadorned melodies?
As on the album, Douglas and his quintet always seemed to stick close to paraphrases of the melody in their improvisations, whether they were accompanying guest singer, and Newton native, Aoife O'Donovan (of the progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still) or veering near to free-jazz territory on a Douglas original. They opened with two instrumentals: "Going Somewhere with You" built from a cappella trumpet to a beautiful cross-weave of lines, long-held tenor-sax tones by Jon Irabagon leaning against Douglas's exuberant flights; and the second, "Turkey and the Straw Man," could have been a super-elaborate hard-bop take on its novelty-tune namesake, with a touch of gospel, Douglas and Irabagon riffing against bassist Linda Oh's solo.
The numbers with O'Donovan formed the core of the set — ancient stuff like "Barbara Allen," or Appalachia-icon Ola Belle Reed's "High on a Mountain." O'Donovan's singing was straightforward and understated — or perhaps undersung or undermiked in the mix, making the words hard to hear. That put the focus on the sound of the band as a whole, how the horns blended with O'Donovan's voice, or how Oh found different ways to complement the top lines with rhythms or melodies. Drummer Clarence Penn was equally laid-back and inventive.
Perhaps the best tune of the night was the instrumental encore — Douglas's arrangement of Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Whither Must I Wander." He played his soaring melodies against Penn's quiet washes of cymbal. And when pianist Matt Mitchell took his solo, his left hand sounded out the melody in chords, slow and steady, while his right hand took off into the æther.
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