There are various ways to fight the power, and when it comes to battling the current assaults against equality, science, social justice and good old common sense, Dave Douglas likes to have his anger generate campaigns of positivity. Rectifying wrongs can yield an array of attacks, but he titled his last outing UPLIFT and this new album ENGAGE because activism, especially creative activism, has transformative effects. Speaking of change, the bandleader, heralded since his 1993 debut as a conceptualist whose ever-shifting interests have yielded a wealth of distinct ensembles, introduces a new outfit here. As they enthusiastically address this program, they create a music of optimism.
Encouragement and assurance waft through the 12 pieces comprising the trumpeter’s 40somethingth album, and though the music sounds familiar – style becomes an artistic signature, even when you dodge formulas as doggedly as Douglas – it remains potent. A clarity of purpose is prominent in many of these tunes, with golden melodies leading the charge and the sextet’s feisty interplay exploding the themes. Rather than coming off like an ornery indictment of kids caged at the border, “How Are the Children” radiates a dark-hued idealism that offers solace while suggesting a transcendence, with saxophonist Anna Webber digging in to offer a variety of emotions in a perpetually flourishing solo.
That’s a tad different than Douglas’ last excursion. Despite its title, UPLIFT aptly echoed some of the social and political turmoil afoot these days. The new record’s liner notes explain that its tunes are paeans to community and involvement, and to underscore such comparatively hopeful feels, the pieces are built on major triads. Google reminds this particular tack will often yield music that’s “simple, bright and happy.” It’s no surprise that Team Douglas renders something a bit meatier than that – these are some of the era’s deftest improvisers, and the boss’s pen is naturally provocative. But there is an enviable anthemic atmosphere to several tracks, and in a captivating way, a pop savvy forms an attractive undercurrent to most performances.
The group – Douglas, Webber, guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, bassist Nick Dunston and drummer Kate Gentile – is united in purpose. The sway of “Free Libraries” is substantial; the swing of “Living Earth” is deep; the pliant changes of “One Sun, A Million Rays” are gripping. There’s plenty of old-school blowing, too. “Where Do We Go From Here” turns into a blast of brass when trumpeters Dave Adewumi and Riley Mutherkar join the action, and there are passages when the music recalls the clarion swag of Henry Threadgill’s early Sextett, reminding how crucial group participation is to the success of any vibrant endeavor. That kind of spirited cooperation has political parallels as well. If we’d all activate and unite, Douglas seems to be saying, we could dump the pernicious bastards now in power, and accomplish so much more.