Songs are effective vehicles for the delivery of outrage, and the history of protest music is only slightly shorter than the history of music itself. Musical expression of political protest reached its greatest concentration in the 20th century, which provided not only inexhaustible fodder for it but also the technical means of delivering protest messages to the masses. From Joe Hill and the I.W.W. through Woody Guthrie to Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine, music has shaped the way that populations think about issues. Can anyone doubt the influence of popular music on America's civil-rights struggle or its turn against the Vietnam War? Further examples abound in Pakistan, Czechoslovakia, Indonesia and dozens of other countries.
Two decades before the civil-rights movement, the stark power of Holiday's "Strange Fruit" stirred indignation about racial injustice. Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Archie Shepp and others created angry and effective protest songs in the '60s, but for the most part protest music in jazz has been instrumental and therefore, inevitably, an abstraction rather than a statement of political ideas. John Coltrane made "Alabama" a wordless and indelible commentary on the struggle for civil rights. Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra addressed repression around the world, from the American South and El Salvador to South Africa.
As the new century continues in the tradition of the old, Dave Douglas focuses his artist's conscience and political acuity on our time and finds plenty to protest. His Witness, initially inspired by arms profiteering during the war in Yugoslavia, also concerns itself with the suppression of political rights, social justice and feminist aspirations. The music calls on the tradition of his jazz predecessors and contemporaries but also draws from Balinese, African and Middle Eastern forms and, heavily, from modern classical composers like Lutoslawski, Ligeti, Stockhausen and, one suspects, Steve Reich.
His ensemble has only 11 people, but the richness of Douglas' writing often gives the illusion of an orchestra. Although his trumpet is the most prominent solo voice, ensemble passages and the interaction of instruments are most important to the nine pieces. The group includes his longtime collaborators cellist Erik Friedlander, reedman Chris Speed, violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Drew Gress. Tom Waits' bonded-in-gravel voice is added for passages by novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Whether on purpose or unintentionally, Waits is so low in the mix that much of the time the words become simply his sound, one more element of Douglas' atmospherics.
Highlights: A lovely melody in "Woman at Point Zero"; the humor of "Kidnapping Kissinger"; the clarinet-and-strings interlude and Douglas's free solo in "Mahfouz"; Michael Sarin's drum solo behind the ensemble as it dances into the Middle East in "Child of All Nations"; Friedlander's elegiac cello in "Sozaboy." How would the music stand on its own if a listener didn't know it was protest music? Pretty well. It's interesting stuff. There might be puzzlement about his category, but there would be no doubt about Douglas' passion.