Review: Dave Douglas & High Risk

At the Pizza Express Dave Douglas and band take the use of electronics to a different level, creating a sound collage that captivates Alan Ainsworth

You might think that Dave Douglas (pictured right with Shigeto Saginaw) had already taken every possible risk in a prolific and extraordinarily varied career as a trumpeter, composer, label owner and educator. Since his work in the early 90s with John Zorn, Douglas has experimented freely across nearly 40 albums with the composition of bands, recorded improvisation with a string trio and accordion, explored Jewish, Balkan and eastern European folk, classic and free jazz and scored for dance and films. Along the way he has collaborated with an eclectic mix of musicians including jazz luminaries Joe Lovano, Bill Frisell and Chris Potter. Nor is High Risk – his latest project featuring electro-acoustic improvised music – the first time he has incorporated electronics into his work. Witness, his nine-part suite released in 2001, was built around two electronic pianos and electronic percussion and the 2005 Keystone album included turntables.

Yet for all his restless experimentation, High Risk takes the creative use of electronics to a different level. Introduced with the 2015 album High Risk, and now with a second CD called Dark Territory, the music captivated, thrilled and challenged in equal measure a Pizza Express Dean Street audience in the first of a two-night residency.

Douglas has teamed up with three young (and incredibly hard-working) musicians who create an extraordinary sonic landscape against which he weaves acoustic trumpet lines. Jason Maron on electric and synth bass and drummer Ian Chang provided a continuous backdrop of complex, shifting rhythms and samples; if Maron was occasionally repetitive, Chang’s energetic drumwork became increasingly complex as the set progressed, culminating in a remarkable solo in an encore number. Vigorous yet varied, Chang seemed to defy exhaustion to produce patterns which became increasingly forceful.

Complex layering of sounds and textures is the key to the High Risk project. While Maron and Chang provided one layer, the wizardry of electronic musician Zachery "Shigeto" Saginaw coupled with Douglas’s acoustic trumpet striated multiple floating layers above the rhythm section. Bouncing frenetically behind a bank of gizmos, Shigeto tweaked buttons, dials, knobs, a one-octave keyboard and an Apple Mac laptop with swift touches to produce a collage of sounds, synced with the band and constantly modulating. Moving seamlessly from what might have been a sample of 1930s swing, through boogie, funk to an impossible-to-decipher landscape of electronic sonics, Shigeto’s role was mostly to provide the backdrop for Douglas’s trumpet. Normally a solo performer in and around New York, Shigeto told me he is enjoying playing in a band and adapting his techniques to the requirements of an ensemble for the first time.

Dave Douglas’s acoustic trumpet brings all these sounds into focus and gives them point. Always lyrical and accessible, his lines flow rootlessly across the soundscape being woven behind him. On occasions we hear a burst of blues lines, on others short, sharp bursts which bring to mind Miles Davis’s electronic adventures. Mostly though his trumpet glides across the firmament, stating and developing themes like the bright trail of a comet against a nebulous galaxy. There was no better instance than an astonishing final piece – a memorial to Ferguson victim Michael Brown. Douglas’s painfully lyrical trumpet and the slow modulation of his collaborators created an intensely mournful and moving tribute.

This is music to experience. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But if you like the idea of a trumpeter as fluent as anyone in jazz against a carefully-crafted electronic sound collage – well, this is one for you.

Photos by Alan Ainsworth

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