Partnerships can blossom in odd ways. In 2014, at a Red Bull Academy show in Manhattan, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas met up with electronica producer Shigeto. The concert premise was unusual. A soloist takes the stage, waxes spontaneous, and after a few minutes is joined by another improviser. They duet for a few minutes more and the first player exits, leaving his or her mate to await the arrival of the next foil. The action unfolds through 15 or so musicians – a round robin of ever-changing interaction. If you know Douglas, who has cut duet albums with both Martial Solal and Han Bennink, you know he’s always up for traversing that kind of tightrope.
The pair bonded after the gig, quickly forming the aptly-named band High Risk with Groove Collective bassist Jonathan Maron and inventive drummer Mark Guiliana. Their self-titled debut was a jazztronica jewel focused on textures and momentum; chopping each of those elements with precision, they navigated a shifting landscape that stretched from drum ‘n’ bass agitation to ethereal fantasias. People took notice because the music was so unique architecturally. At times it seemed determined. Occasionally it was nonchalant. The tracks that comprise Dark Territory were cut during the High Risk sessions, and are actually more impressive than those of its predecessor.
Segues are crucial to these kinds of albums, where mood has just as much utility as solos, and interplay is a many-layered onion. Dark Territory moves from the graceful jitters of “Celine” to the monstrous pulse of “Loom Large,” and along the way it’s tough to get a firm grip on the action – which is a compliment. The nuanced interplay seems to be perpetually morphing – a kaleidoscopic experience. At top volume – and it sounded superb shaking the rafters of my house on hot August afternoons – it’s about authority tilting towards aggression. But it works as a more benign affair as well. Dial it down a bit and the ambient adventures start to meld their particulars, and each, including Guiliana’s steely clatter and Shigeto’s bruising synths, are presented as essential elements of a gauzy dreamscape. It’s a neat trick, attempted and achieved to varying degrees by horn players such as Nils Petter Molvaer on Solid Ether and Nicholas Payton on Sonic Trance. Of course the granddaddy of the sound – for trumpeters, at least – is Miles Davis. The fractious funk and churning collage of pieces like “Rated X” and “Honky Tonk” from the early-’70s formed the template for these modern gambits.
Douglas has had a knack for incorporating electronic instruments since 2003’s Freak In, which flecked nubop with a mix of keybs, loops and digital percussion. And his Keystone group found DJ Olive injecting some sonic info via turntables. But here the mesh of Morrow’s synth bass and Shigeto’s software is much more defining. The latter’s contributions can’t be underestimated. A jazz-savvy studio artist who has skills at playing a trap set (his instrument of choice during that round-robin show), Shigeto’s eloquence at contouring distressed patterns gives Dark Territory its defining personality. Previous tracks, like the Sun Hammer remix of his “Huron River Drive” or “Ritual Howl” from No Better Time Than Now, are bleepadelic grooves in search of a soloist. There are several moments on Dark Territory where it seems he’s found an optimum mate in Douglas’ evocative horn.
The band’s first album was dedicated to the heroic activists addressing our climate change dilemma – high risk, indeed. This one is inspired by Douglas absorbing author Fred Kaplan’s latest book, Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War. Moments of steely dread bubble up here and there, but regardless of its tech origins, the music upends the chilling possibility of a dystopian future. Toggle between “Let’s Get One Thing Straight,” “Ridge Hill,” and “All The Pretty Horsepower” for a dose of humanity, regardless of how computer-enhanced the action is. Like Kneebody’s recent Daedelus collabo or the warmest tracks by Oneohtrix Point Never and Mount Kimbie, Dark Territory suggests that a cluster of digital keystrokes can be twisted into a landscape of warmth. The trumpeter has said that this band deals with the “dangers and challenges of technology.” Along the way, their electro-acoustic opus emits both seductive designs and emotionally provocative missives.