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Album Review: Dave Douglas "United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport (Live)"

Trumpeter Dave Douglas is known for his lyrically innovative style. It never fails to straddle the line between brassy exuberance and graceful sensitivity. Whether working with his new brass quintet, Brass Ecstasy, or his electronic sextet, Keystone, Douglas displays a talent for balancing lively arrangements with endlessly inventive improvisations. His newest album, United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport (Live), captures the two-time Grammy nominated trumpet player at the crossroads of jazz traditionalism and the avant-garde. Recorded as a performance during the 2010 Carefusion New Port Jazz Festival and presented as a part of NPR’s live concert series, the album features five original compositions from Douglas and one beautiful arrangement of Hank Williams Sr. tune. The songs on this album are imbued with the kind of energy that only a live performance can create. Listen closely and you’ll hear the audience shout and scream their approval. And believe me – after hearing to this album, you’ll probably do the same.
United Front opens with “Spirit Moves,” one of the band’s two previously unreleased songs. With its solid, march-like groove, this tune provides the perfect backdrop for the wide intervallic leaps and dynamic phrasing of Douglas’s solo. The next tune, “Rava,” begins with a hushed, ominous incantation, which then breaks forcefully into a charged and trumpet-punctuated funk. “Fats,” featuring complex harmonies and a spiraling melody, is an outstanding example of Douglas’s unique improvisational skills. His solo on the tune, at times strident and grumbling, is endlessly inventive, yet plays nicely with the band’s rich harmonic balance. Douglas’s arrangement of “I’m So Lonely I Could Cry” is a poetic interpretation of a Hank William Sr. song. But on this track, Douglas’s harmon-muted trumpet and pentatonic lines lend the country-fried melody a coolness even Miles Davis would be proud of. On “United Front,” another previously unreleased song, Douglas and the band settle into a thumping, tuba-driven groove, creating a consistent pulse for the soulful improvisations that follow. The album closes with “Bowie,” a musical homage to Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie. The twelve-minute song is a swirling combination of avant-garde screams, carefully measured marches, and driving, straight-ahead bebop. It’s the perfect conclusion to an album whose songs capture all the greatness of modern jazz without any of its off-putting clichés.

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Brian Zimmerman