Over the course of 20 albums as a leader, trumpeter Dave Douglas has reconfigured the role of his instrument within jazz while broadening the music’s ever flexible palette as a composer and arranger. Whether performing the music of Kurt Weill and Stravinsky backed by a string trio, fusing Eastern European folk and American improvisation, composing with ’20s silent film star “Fatty” Arbuckle as inspiration, or simply blasting away with his brass-centric Brass Ecstasy band, Douglas is seemingly never at a loss for creative outlets or ideas.
Be Still may be Douglas’s most distinctive project to date. Performed by a new quintet and joined by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan of progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still, Be Still is a plaintive collection of hymns and folk songs altered by detailed, jewel-like improvisations and O’Donovan’s delicate vocals, which often recall Alison Krauss.
Each song receives a unique treatment: Opener “Be Still” evokes a lush, expansive Americana somewhere between Union Station and Bruce Hornsby, with the band erupting in flashes of cresting improvisations. “High on a Mountain” introduces a bit of yee-haw! hokum, its jig-like rhythm and hillbilly vocal melody sounding rather stilted coming from these New York City jazz musicians, save Matt Mitchell’s bright piano interlude. “This is My Mother’s World” recalls a New Orleans funeral march, the groove swinging from upbeat to sedate. “Going Somewhere with You” is the least hymnal of the set, its queasy melody and practically rubato rhythm creating a sense of unease perhaps meant to imply the proverbial “crossing over.”
Be Still‘s repertoire was performed at the memorial service for Douglas mother, and as such, may be too close to be more than a dark rumination. As an experiment, Be Still is thoughtful, sometimes compelling. But strangely, it is never comforting or sympathetic, which is ultimately the goal behind any hymn or folk song. Be Still seems to focus on the finality of loss, not the ecstasy of release.