The art of shape-note singing combines spiritual messages with simple folk melodies. Created during the 19th century, it gave non-tutored voices the ability to express their devotion while singing in four-part harmony. The music found in century-old books like Ye Olde New England Psalm Tunes and The Sacred Harp intrigued trumpeter Dave Douglas, who interpreted hymns and folk songs on his lauded 2012 album Be Still. Together with pianist Uri Caine, he’s reimagined five shape-note songs with improvisation, plus five originals. The intimacy of these duets makes the music blend together so that, at times, it’s hard to tell a new piece from something written over a century ago.
Douglas plays many of these melodies in the midrange of his horn, giving them an especially warm, vocal quality. The approach affords the music a feeling of searching or yearning that hints at the lyrics of the songs, which the trumpeter explains often leaned heavy on the God-fearing aspects of religion. At the same time, he and Caine inject pure jazz qualities into the music too, such as when the title track shifts into a steady 4/4 groove—with a Charlie Parker riff tossed in for good measure. The original “End to End” maintains the album’s subdued quality, even as Douglas adds some squirts and growls to the out-of-tempo opening. Caine’s chordal support makes the melodies shine, but he’s more than an accompanist here, adding ideas that make him an equal partner. The source music for much of Present Joys might land on the side of the simplistic, but Douglas and Caine infuse it with respectful creativity.