’m finding myself in a strange position lately; listening to, and falling in love with, more and more jazz, but not really having the vocabulary or breadth of subject knowledge to express it, to think about the connotations and ontology, to articulate the ideas and feelings it gives rise to in me. Normally when I sit down to review a record and find myself with nothing to write it’s because I’m nonplussed, moved neither back nor forth and left with no wish to say anything. This time it’s because I simply don’t know how to say what I want. I’m not even sure what it is that I do want to say.
I’m of the opinion that Dave Douglas may just be a genius. In ten years he has helmed 20 records and guested on countless others besides, a work-rate that makes Timbaland look like Radiohead. That he has produced albums of the calibre of Songs For Wandering Souls, Constellations, El Trilogy, Charms Of The Night Sky and Soul On Soul within the last decade confirms that he is a master of quality as well as quantity. I wonder if perhaps this eagerness to write, play and record as much and as often as possible would benefit the types of (rock) bands who are content to leave two or even three years between releases in the search for elusive perfection.
Freak In marks a divergence for Douglas, who’s eclectic catalogue and broad influences (from Coltrane to Stravinsky to Stevie Wonder) testify to a career constructed out of divergences and half-opportunities observed and explored. Over the 12 tracks presented here (the last is unlisted, if not uncredited) Douglas incorporates a gentle miasma of electronic backings and booming tablas over which the rest of the group play freely. The keys, loops and electronics provided by Jamie Saft and Ikue Mori are far from tokenistic though, melding wonderfully with Joey Barons drums, Brad Jones’ bass and Karsh Kale’s tablas to provide a level of spacious detail which complements the lyricism of guitarist Marc Ribot, saxophonists Seamus Blake and Chris Speed, and of course Douglas himself. These microcosmic shimmers and luminescent diversions function as observational details, adding layers of empathy to the emotions conjured and trailed by the soloists’ flights. After electronica’s eager appropriation of the humanistic communications and narratives of jazz over the last few years, it’s nice to see the relationship moving beneficially in the opposite direction.
The title track starts with three notes of sea-bed-deep bass and a rumble of tabla before an energetic motif is established and turned over quickly, while “Black Rock Park” melts dissonant guitar and trumpet with a contorted groove that has as much in common with Boredoms as Duke Ellington, acres of space opening up your ears to the exhilarating noise that punctures it. “Traveller There Is No Road” reaches rolling dynamic peaks of momentum while “Porto Alegre” sings with a sweet melancholy. “Wild Blue” experiments with spoken word moments and electric interference, but it is “November” which is the centrepiece of the album, an astounding and affecting piece which belies its delicacy and wistfulness with a powerful emotional punch and assured, suggestive sonics and playing. When the drums arrive after 3 minutes the effect is akin to blue skies slowly unfurling from beneath a curtain of clouds. Quite simply it’s about the most beautiful piece of music I’ve heard all year. That it doesn’t overshadow its fellow pieces on Freak In is testament to the sheer quality of the music of Dave Douglas.