Dave Douglas – Freak In (2003)

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by Tom Johnson

In many ways, I am still no closer to being able to put words to my feelings for this album. Instead, I find myself forcing words upon it, all of which are rendered meaningless because they really don’t describe this album, only things that have come before it.

It would be simple to rattle off a list of names anyone mildly familiar with jazz could — Miles Davis, John McLaughlin, Ornette Coleman immediately spring to mind — but that would be to belittle the effort that created Freak In. There are moments that recall all of the above, and many more moments where it is obvious that Douglas is not comfortable simply standing on the shoulders of the giants before him — so he jumps from them instead.

Douglas’ calling cards are all in evidence here: the bright tone, stately lines, and the laid-back style. Those hoping to hear Douglas’ vaguely middle-eastern tinged sound — the sound his participation in Masada accentuates to great effect — were not be disappointed. What sold Freak In was that Douglas is able to maintain control of a group whose direction could so easily be swayed by any one of the number of powerful players present, but without any evidence that he was forced to reign in any of his cohorts. The result was a cohesive group effort under the approving eye of a natural leader that leaves plenty of breathing room and checks the egos at the door.

It’s certainly not for everyone: The grasp of contemporary instrumentation and studio manipulation, not to mention the jam-band feel to certain tracks, will alienate fans of “traditional” jazz who have a hard time hearing this type of music as jazz. Those looking for a performance like Douglas’ The Infinite should look elsewhere. Other than Douglas himself, the two albums share no similarities.

I do, however, find some similarity to another of Douglas’ albums, Sanctuary, an adventurous two-disc free-form abstraction of fringe music styles. On that release, drums interact with sampler-wielding electronics gurus, while horns bounce off the dueling basses, which not only hold down the low end but frequently provide their own unearthly sounds in sympathy with the samplers. Sanctuary treads similar ground to Freak In, but the latter builds the source material into more song-like results.

To say that Freak In doesn’t have its roots deep in the soil of Miles Davis’ revolutionary 1970s work is misleading. It does, and it couldn’t possibly exist without it. But comparing the two does grave disservice to what Douglas has put together.

Both artists relied on studio manipulations, but there is clearly a modern sheen to Douglas’ output. Compositions tend to be more concise and structured, as well, which puts considerable distance between Freak In and the work of Davis in the 1970s. It’s tracks like the stately “November,” a thoughtful but never somber ballad, that delineate the gray area between the two. Where Davis may have chosen to pursue the ambience, Douglas plays up the melody with the backing of some electronic sounds and tabla, then wisely drop-kicks the tune into a higher gear with a very modern live drum line.

The rest of the album follows suit, mixing squawky guitars with graceful horn lines, or just plain gets-down and rumbles along in a heavy groove, such as during the title track. A key difference I notice lies within the rhythm section: There is much emphasis on maintaining whatever groove develops within a track, and often these build up to a furious shuffle that never lets up. What I am hearing in this is an influence derived from the jam-band scene, a genre in which the bands, live, will extend and twist songs into much longer beasts than their studio counterparts, with the rhythm section responsible for keeping things flowing smoothly.

This is not to say that Douglas’ group is a jam-band. They are far more skilled and adept at handling long free-form excusions than any typical jam-band. But the influence is there, and it is not necessarily a bad thing — if you can handle it. It is, if anything, one of the more rock-influenced tendencies of the album, which explains why this album has both confounded and excited me for months now. Moods have no effect: The music is listenable and enjoyable regardless whether I’m actually in the mood for jazz or not.

The amazing thing about Dave Douglas’ ability to lead a group as disparate as what he has assembled for this outing is that it maintains its identity as true jazz — a testiment to the power of Douglas, and hopefully and indicator of more quality, challenging works in the future.

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