Dave Douglas’s 2012 quintet album Be Still focused on Protestant hymns his mother asked him to play at her memorial service. Present Joys feels something of a distillation and reaffirmation of that experience. It consists largely of spiritual music, solid as Shaker furniture and often as sober as a Quaker meeting, performed by two attuned virtuosos who have worked together in various configurations for more than 20 years.
Five of Present Joy‘s 10 pieces belong to the canon of a cappella shape-note singing, a simplified style of notation from the early 19th century that was developed to facilitate community and congregational singing. In the hands of Douglas and pianist Uri Caine, however, devotional classics such as the transcendent “Soar Away” and elegiac “Bethel” display a wealth of subtlety in their supposed simplicity — especially when the title track is transformed into bluesy bop. Playing without overdubs in an aurally dry, pristine setting, the duo leavens and lightens the deep, solid spirituality of tunes like “Confidence” with a handful of Douglas originals. These range from the chopping-block-inspired “Ham Fist” and ceaselessly climactic “End to End” — each refreshingly sharp and witty — to the closing ballad “Zero Hour,” wherein Caine’s gorgeously joyous response to Douglas’s more serious reflections create a brand new world in five minutes and change.