Sunday, November 27, 2016

Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste - Dada People (Greenleaf, 2016) ***½

By Lee Rice Epstein

When Dave Douglas and Frank Woeste first decided to collaborate on a dedication to the great Jewish immigrant artist Man Ray, there was almost no way they could have predicted the mood, time, and place in which the album would be released. Autumn 2016 has been harsh, foregrounded by global politics fueled, in part, by anti-Semitism and nationalist xenophobia. Douglas, American, and Woeste, French, both face this reality now. Just over 100 years ago, in response to anti-Semitism, the Radnitzky family changed its name to Ray and Emmanuel became Man. If I seem to be implying something weightier than would seem appropriate for Ray, who appeared to dismiss his Jewish identity during his lifetime, keep in mind he fled France and returned to the US during WWII, and later still married Juliet Browner, a Romanian Jew. Despite the intention to separate or distance oneself, Jewishness pervades. I have been in offices, at parties, in whole towns where I am, at any one time, the only Jew, and everybody else knows it, too. "Unconcerned, but not indifferent" reads Ray’s epitaph. I don’t want to overanalyze it, but it is, like much of his art, a perfect acknowledgement of that experience.

For weeks, I’ve been working up a review of the album’s wondrous touch, the group alive with the collaborative spirit. The quartet, co-led by Douglas on trumpet and Woeste on piano and Fender Rhodes, is rounded out by Clarence Penn on drums and Matt Brewer on bass. Brewer, fast becoming one of my favorite bassists, is most definitely the MVP of the group. I had become so used to hearing Linda Oh in Douglas’s quartet. Brewer has a similarly approach, a lush tone with a dynamic style he deploys to prod and interrogate his companions. Cue up Woeste’s Fender Rhodes solo on “Spork” for one such highlight. It precedes Brewer’s own lyrical solo.

A few practical notes: Douglas and Woeste split composing duties, with five tracks each. Their sensibilities are well matched. For example, Woeste’s “Montparnasse” fits beautifully alongside Douglas’s long line of slightly down-tempo odes. In the final minutes, Douglas and Woeste settle into a near-unison, Woeste playing out echoes of the melody under Douglas’s piercing statement. “Art of Reinvention,” another Woeste composition, produces some of the best interplay on the album. Late in the track, the tempo begins to shift radically, playing out an experiment urged by the title. The closer, “Danger Dancer,” plays two rhythmic melodies against each other, at a slightly awkward slant, creating a subtle tension.

In the past few weeks, several friends have fallen to one side or the other in an argument over the role, purpose, and value of art under threat. In that conversation, I would place Dada People squarely in the hopeful category, which is to say it’s lifted me up off the floor several times this month. It is fairly straightforward, yes, though with much of Douglas’s music, in particular, the thrill and experimentation hides in the details. It’s not High Risk; you wouldn’t come to this album looking for revolution. But as with Man Ray’s art, you might continue to return to it, always with a fresh perspective, and discover there is something special here.

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