9:54 AM CST, December 15, 2012
No doubt there's a certain spiritual appeal to "Be Still," the most recent recording of trumpeter Dave Douglas.
As he has explained in interviews and on the recording's brief liner notes, the hymns on the album were suggested by his mother and performed by him at her memorial service. To Douglas, these works – and the originals he penned to complement them – obviously carry profound personal meaning.
But on purely musical terms, this work is not Douglas' strongest, and in concert, it proved still less striking than on the recording. In both settings, the central flaw concerned the contributions of vocalist Aoife O'Donovan.
In some regards, it's not difficult to understand why Douglas chose O'Donovan for this recording, the first in which he has used a vocalist. The gauzy quality of her tone and the innocence and straightforwardness of her delivery clearly suited the hymnal source material and the ethereal message Douglas was reaching for.
But O'Donovan's heavy presence on the album, in combination with the harmonically unambiguous nature of these scores, rendered much of "Be Still" musically and expressively repetitive. In performance Friday night at the Green Mill, these flaws were magnified, especially regarding O'Donovan.
Her meager instrument stood little chance against the horns of Douglas and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, as well as a swirl of sound from pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston. Even when the rest of the band piped down and allowed O'Donovan to sing forth, her conspicuous tendency to fade away at certain key notes and constantly break the continuity of a melodic line diminished the power of the music at hand. And to hear her simplistic, four-square singing alongside instrumental improvisation of this stature rendered her virtually insignificant by comparison.
Though it was possible to catch some of the lyrics to "High on a Mountain," for instance, for the most part O'Donovan's vocals disappeared from the ensemble texture with irritating frequency. In "Glowing Heart," O'Donovan's unremitting earnestness became difficult to take, while her vocal affectations devolved into mannerisms.
Ultimately, she was out of her depth in this setting.
Douglas' new quintet, by contrast, acquitted itself quite well during this first set of a two-night run, the trumpeter inevitably emerging the focal point of the music-making. He remains one of the most inspired soloists in jazz, an improviser whose melodic flights are as unpredictable as they are satisfying, his lines by turns lyrical and fleeting, high-flown and conversational.
Saxophonist Irabagon held his own alongside Douglas, no small achievement, the heft of Irabagon's tone matched by the intensity of his statements. Drummer Royston evoked the work of Chicagoan Dana Hall, and though Royston doesn't quite match Hall's power or precision (few do), he's pursuing essentially the same school of thought.
In the end, however, the combination of the hymnal repertoire and O'Donovan's wispy, uneven vocals made this one of Douglas' less effective Chicago performances in a long run of brilliant ones.
The muted reaction from the crowd, as well as Douglas' verbal attempts to rouse his listeners, underscored the point. Despite the high sheen of this work, it sounded consistently underwhelming, and the problem was not the audience.
Dave Douglas performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
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