Monday, February 02, 2004

This is Ben Ratliff's review of the new Dave Douglas disc Strange Liberation.

"Strange Liberation" is the best album in several years by Dave Douglas, a prolific trumpeter and bandleader. It doesn't take long for each of his new bands to sound good, but a lot depends on the material these bands are working on. Mr. Douglas is project minded, not just writing to the strengths of his players but often composing with specific goals, homages or sound combinations in mind.

This album, on Bluebird/Arista, is by his three-year-old quintet (Chris Potter on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, Uri Caine on piano, James Genus on bass, Clarence Penn on drums) with the guitarist Bill Frisell as a sixth member. There is no stated theme, but there is Mr. Frisell, and that can quickly become a theme in itself. His sound is so distinct and enveloping that he can be a dangerous presence on another person's album: if the inviter doesn't have a strong enough group concept or leaves Mr. Frisell lots of room, the album quickly becomes dominated by the guest. That doesn't happen here. Mr. Frisell is folded into the group more or less as an equal, and Mr. Douglas heads him off at the pass by writing some pieces that are tributes in the best sense. They do not imitate Mr. Frisell's music; they suggest many facets of it, and in Mr. Douglas's voice.

Mr. Douglas also grasps that Mr. Frisell is not just one kind of musician; he is about 30 kinds at once. So the record pulls in various directions: Wayne Shorteresque songs containing mysterious melodic lines countered by strong harmonic motion (the tracks "Strange Liberation" and "The Frisell Dream"), a quiet, repetitive lullaby with a guitar drunk on electronic looping and effects ("Mountains From the Train"), rugged rhythm-and-blues that changes into 4/4 swing ("Rock of Billy").

Meanwhile the band has the rhythmic drive and timbral originality — especially with Mr. Caine's Fender Rhodes electric piano and Mr. Potter's bass clarinet — to go up against Mr. Frisell properly.

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