Riverside [Dave Douglas, Chet Doxas, Steve Swallow, Jim Doxas] – The New National Anthem (2017)

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Dave Douglas’ first Riverside project was a creative tribute to avant-jazz lion Jimmy Giuffre. For his second project with bassist Steve Swallow, reedist Chet Doxas and drummer Jim Doxas, this trumpet player, bandleader and composer set his sights on a subject who is hard not to think of when examining Giuffre’s own legacy. Carla Bley is an NEA Jazz Master who is arguably jazz’s greatest living composer, and Giuffre himself was an early adopter of Bley’s compositions, songs he played in the early 60’s when her then-husband Paul Bley was his pianist and Bley’s current life partner Swallow was his bass player.

Making an album out of covering/tributing Carla is not unique concept, but one that accurately taps into the essence of this elusive lyrist with all her grace, wit, unpredictability and insightful respect to jazz’s heritage is something altogether more rare, and Douglas knows that. The New National Anthem, now out on Douglas’ Greenleaf Music imprint, belongs in that exclusive club.

It belongs there despite there being only three of her songs featured out of eleven cuts. “The New National Anthem,” originally conceived for a 1967 Gary Burton album A Genuine Tong Funeral (yes, Swallow was present on that disc as was Bley) serves here as a short intro into Douglas’ own “Old Country,” which actually sounds as an extension of the title song, but with more energy and a thematic line that could have easily sprung from the mind of Bley. It sets the tone for the rest of the album with its almost contradictory but irresistible combination of calculated harmony and casual attitude.

Douglas more openly reconstitutes a Bley composition and puts it right next to a performance of the song that inspired it in his treatment of “King Korn.” Hearing “Korn” — which stretches bop to its breaking point — rendered by trumpet and clarinet, is a refreshing new look, and the preceding “King Conlon” shares much of the same DNA. Jim Doxas’ drums follow closely to the choppy theme and breaking into a spunky swing during the solo stretches. “Enormous Tots” is the only Bley song presented to go on for more than two minutes, another specimen of her whimsy, brashness and an eccentricity that embraces rather than puts off.

Having someone ‘on the inside’ like Swallow almost makes this endeavor an unfair comparison with other Bley-centric affairs, but this uniquely talented bassist had accumulated over five decades of his own legacy apart from his close proximity to greatness (Giuffre, both Bleys, Gary Burton, John Scofield, etc.). For starters, he’s a damned fine composer, too, and Douglas was able to coax him into contributing a new tune, “Never Mind.” A song that Bley thought ‘sounds like Ornette (Coleman) and Don (Cherry)’ morphed into something else by the time the Swallow got done tinkering with the arrangement and key, but in its final incarnation remains a very dignified, alluring piece. Douglas and Chet Doxas combine their voices sympathetically to make that feeling come alive.

Chet Doxas came up with “View From A Bird,” which is first enunciated via Swallow’s tone-perfect bass lines, followed by the two horn guys further fleshing out the thematic line and Douglas on muted trumpet leaving behind a superb aside.

“Demigods” is an occasion for Swallow to take a solo spot, which is not your typical bass solo spot, since his electric bass is unusually lyrical and swinging. “Il Sentiero” begins like an Ornette song and then settles into a lazy, Tin Pan Alley kind of vibe and ends on a Dixieland trot; just the kind of jocular mashup Bley would do. A muscular rock rhythm drives “Americano,” which seems to send Douglas’ trumpet soaring and jabbing like Jack Johnson-era Miles Davis.

The ever-discerning Bley herself is a fan of The New National Anthem, and with the joy on display that went into making this record, it’s not hard to figure why. In his thoughtful musical dissertations and fresh takes on some of the most complex and misunderstood jazz geniuses throughout the idiom’s history, Dave Douglas keeps elevating his own craft and himself becomes a shining example for others to follow.

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