On Strange Liberation - a play on a phrase of Martin Luther King's; he once said that the Vietnamese must have seen Americans as "strange liberators" - trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas expands his quintet to realize a long-held ambition: to have guitarist Bill Frisell in the ranks of his group. Douglas has once again stepped back from the precipice of his intense gaze at the musical landscape of American culture and turned his focus directly and intensely toward jazz for this set. Along with Frisell, pianist Uri Caine, saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn join Douglas for an electric jazz outing that falls far outside the purview of "fusion." Douglas has obviously composed these works with Frisell in mind, and this is his most saturated jazz date in some time. His playing here is front-line and full of his trademark counterpoint and atmospheric fills, as Douglas engages both the pastoral nature and the complexity of his harmonic view, making Caine a conflating bridge between the horns, guitar, and rhythm section. The album starts with a sparse melodic figure that borders on modalism in "A Single Sky," Frisell's microphonics holding the edges of the piece in check as Douglas and Potter weave through Caine's beautiful chord voicings in a minor progression. The title track uses a blues framework that allows Caine to play a skeletal funk vamp on his Rhodes in order to bring Douglas and Potter into the fore as Frisell paints the backdrop deep blue until it's his turn to solo. There are silences in the margins and they are used as an improvisational device, imposing themselves from outside on the players.
"Frisell's Dream" and "Mountains from the Train" could have been on one of Frisell's own recordings. The latter is a mellow, pastoral soundscape with guitars played backwards and forwards and harmonics floating freely in the solo spaces that surround the melody - a languid and unhurried line full of color, space, and texture played by the horns. Frisell's melodicism is played inversely here, and Caine fills in the dots. On "Frisell's Dream," an elegant jazz classicism is evoked in the head where blues, swing, and Aaron Copland's wit are on display in a knotty little melodic figure that gives way to an open-chorded Americana that is now Frisell's signature. And on "The Jones," the funky mischief of Thelonious Monk is touched upon in the melody as Caine muscles up the middle and punches through Douglas' lines as Penn's rim shots accent the edges of the time signature. Potter too climbs aboard the melody and Frisell once again becomes the guitarist as impressionist painter before Caine deftly wraps a knockout heavily arpeggiated solo through the entire proceeding and changes the pace. Strange Liberation is a laid-back record in terms of its dynamics, but in its imagination and depth it is one of the high marks of Douglas' thus far prolific career. Compositionally it is head and shoulders above most of the stuff out there, and in terms of the taste in its performance and elocution it is virtually untouchable.
- Thom Jurek (All Music Guide)
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In 1987, I asked Bill Frisell to join me for a recording date in New York. Unfortunately (for me), he was already too busy to be playing with someone who didn't actually have a record deal-or even any real gigs to speak of. In 1987, I was a recent graduate of N.Y.U., and I had just left Horace Silver's group. Hearing the way Bill and his band were playing was a revelation to me.
Bill is one of the truly great American composers and musicians, emerging from a tradition of those like Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Thelonious Monk, and Julius Hemphill, whose work manifests the warmth and breadth of this country. The uniqueness of his guitar playing is well documented, while his willingness-even eagerness-to make music with any kind of musician is unparalleled, even in this age of collapsing genre boundaries. Over the years we crossed paths many times, but it was a special pleasure to finally share music written specifically for Bill as a guest with my quintet.
Strange Liberation: it's in the abandon of Chris Potter's solo on Seventeen, an intricately complex form to which he brings an awesome sense of freedom. It's in the aura that Clarence Penn creates on Just Say This, and his unstoppable momentum on Rock of Billy. Clarence brings a power and spontaneity that are uncategorizable, and only come from having found one's own way. It's in Uri Caine's mind-boggling solo on The Jones.
He shows a warmth throughout and an uncanny musical knack for being in the right place at the right time. And it's in the sound of James Genus. His unerring sense of when to hold it down and when to let it free facilitates the way we all play together.
It has been said that freedom without limitations is meaningless. This band explores the borders of freedom and bends the rules with a compelling logic and passion. What we play certainly refers back to the great traditions of jazz and American music, but it is expressed in a unique, personal language that develops over time. There is a sort of freedom in being unattached to any formula or dogma; to let each piece find its own rules. And there is certainly the possibility for failure in exploring new territory. It is strangely liberating to put myself in a new situation where I am forced to admit that I have neverdone this before, and, in some sense, have no idea what I am doing.
Skeeter-ism was inspired by the manic pianisms of my eight-year-old friend, Skeeter. When I tried to teach him Blue Monk, he came up with his own relentlessly percussive version, which forced me to retaliate with the present piece for him. Shards of the original harmony may be heard.
Several years ago, I had a dream I was listening to Bill's trio in concert. In the dream, they were playing a piece of music I didn't recognize, and I woke up and wrote enough of it down to later remember almost the whole thing. I thought it was one of his pieces, and to this day I have no idea where it all came from. I call it The Frisell Dream.
Just Say This is a melody that came to me while walking around lower Manhattan in September, 2001. It was hard to finish this piece, coming as it does with such a heavy burden of tragedy and suffering. For me, music was the only possible comment about such a horrible crime. In seeing the events and their aftermath, I dedicate this recording both to the New Yorkers who came through it and to those around the world who are suffering in the ongoing events.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King gave a speech at Riverside Church entitled Beyond Vietnam, in which he remarked that, "They must see Americans as strange liberators." Dr. King spoke from a very different time, but there is an uncomfortable resemblance to current affairs. Whether you agree or disagree with the stated aims, our government's behavior around the world has caused serious rifts in international understanding and skewed our spending priorities without increasing our safety at home. "A time comes when silence is betrayal," King says, and adds that "we must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."
Music speaks. It speaks in its own language differently to each of us. 1 believe in music as a contribution to the discussion about who we are and where we are headed.This is not a 'political record,' but it comes with both a love for this country and an uneasy awareness of the current state of justice, fairness, and equality.
The unruly thing about music is that it demands its own meanings that are beyond any explanation. You might be able to decipher the nuts and bolts, but in the end, you can't unscramble the mystery of how music makes you feel.
That's why I don't usually write about my music. Words can so often obscure the feelings and the sense of music. Music is not an argument; it lives in its own universe and refuses to be pinned down.
For me, these many influences and realities are a part-a small part-of what goes into this music. The important thing is what happens when you put on the record and listen.