Dave Douglas and Uri Caine have both done their share of experimentation in the past but in this meeting of the famed trumpeter and famed pianist, it’s not about a certain musical style but a musical fervor framed around a very old way of notating music for amateurs.
Present Joys (out July 22, 2014 via Greenleaf Records) recasts the shape-note singing traditions that first sprung up in 17th century New England and eventually made its way to the dusty, rural churches of the South. Shape-note songs made it possible for groups of people without any formal musical training to sing four-part harmonies with glorious results.
Such an approach might seem far away from what virtuosic non-singer musicians like Douglas and Caine would be care to indulge themselves with, but the approach has long excited Douglas because he saw the possibilities. He describes it this way: “Shape-note and psalm-tune singing come from early American composers and really hinges on non-academic way of thinking about harmony and making multi-part vocal music. That intrigued me because sometimes what we do as improvisers is to go on instinct and intuition, making stuff that may not always be precisely explainable.” Another way of putting it might be that shape-note singers work from minimal cues; so do advanced jazz musicians.
Listening to Present Joys before digging into the music’s background, I could sense the music reached back far put into a new context through the polished tweaks in cadence and the framing of a melody by Caine and the airy, direct and intimate trumpet of Douglas. Half of the songs were taken from the shape-note tunebooks, but reshaped extensively to fit the dispositions of these two performers. For example, the chamber music backgrounds of both are well exploited, and it’s evident in A.M. Cagle’s “Soar Away.” Cagle was also responsible for the song that gave its name to this album, a simple, rustic harmony that’s given a 20th century kick in the pants by the swing the duo inserts into it (even quoting Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” to make sure you get the bop connection). The traditional “Bethel” is turned into a graceful elegy, where Douglas’ pure, mournful tone is all that’s needed to make it so.
Caine sharply played staccato puts tension against the flowing lines of Douglas for “Ham Fist,” and “End To End,” another one of Douglas’ tunes, is the blurring of soloing and comping as they both go down a staggered path together, but changes direction two or three times. Situated right at the end, the Douglas original “Zero Hour” contains Caine’s most strident and gospel piano, but the majestic vibe isn’t disturbed.
In all, it feels as if Dave Douglas and Uri Caine had a private, warmhearted meeting of minds and we were allowed to listen in on it. The music here either comes from a distant past or inspired by that past but Present Joys lives in the here and now.