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Concert Review: Dave Douglas in Cambridge, 11-15-12

The trumpeter is joined on hymns from his new album ‘Be Still’ by singer Aoife O’Donovan

Dave Douglas doesn’t generally work with vocalists of any type, let alone folk singers. But he made an exception for Be Still, the eclectic album of hymns he recorded at the request of and in tribute to his late mother. And he was doing so again when he passed through Cambridge, Mass., playing the Regattabar on his brief East Coast tour in support of the new album.

Joining trumpeter Douglas were most of the standout young musicians from Be Still: Jon Irabagon on tenor sax, Matt Mitchell on piano and Linda Oh on bass, with Clarence Penn subbing for Rudy Royston on drums. On vocals, as on the album, was Boston native Aoife O’Donovan, best known for her work with her longtime alternative bluegrass group Crooked Still, and introduced by Douglas as “my favorite singer in the world.”

Douglas led off the night’s opening Regattabar set with a pair of instrumental originals, with O’Donovan seated just offstage. “Going Somewhere With You” began with Douglas’ unaccompanied trumpet before the rest of the quintet kicked in. Irabagon blew an impressive solo, Douglas indicating his approval by snapping his fingers along with the audience’s applause, and Mitchell followed it with something lyrical, the two horns interweaving lines together atop it in places. “The Turkey and the Straw Man,” which is not on the album, was up next, Oh smiling as she navigated the tricky theme as it got underway. Douglas took the first solo, with rapid comping from Mitchell and walking bass from Oh supporting the leader. Energetic solos by each of the other members of the group followed, with Penn’s punctuated by the two horns trading fours.

It was now time for Donovan to join the others onstage. “One of the reasons I started doing [Be Still] was that my mother wanted me to do hymns,” Douglas explained. “It was sort of laughable at first, and then threatening, and then possible, and then very possible.”

O’Donovan began with a pair of Douglas-arranged traditionals. “This Is My Father’s World” included another impressive solo by Irabagon and some supportive trumpet from Douglas accompanying O’Donovan’s vocal lines. Of his slow, stately “Barbara Allen” arrangement Douglas joked, “We took a few verses of it and cobbled it together and then tossed it in a fryer and shook it up.” O’Donovan’s part included both lyrics and wordless vocals, a verse of the former a cappella; Douglas used his left hand to mute his trumpet in places, the only times he did so during the set.

Another tune not on the album followed: Gillian Welch’s “One Morning.” Welch and O’Donovan share both a fondness for old-timey music and an education at one or another of Boston’s leading music schools (O’Donovan at New England Conservatory, Welch at the Berklee College of Music), so it was no surprise that O’Donovan was at ease with her part. New to the mix, though, was the horns trading lines early on in the piece, the ethereal piano of Mitchell, and the accompaniment of a jazz trio. Penn, while new to this ensemble, is fully comfortable with vocalists; a few months earlier he had backed Kate McGarry across the Charles River at the Boston club Scullers. Penn also appreciates and enhances a finely wrought bass solo; he appeared practically ecstatic as he accompanied Oh’s on “One Morning” with his brushes.

O’Donovan exited for another instrumental, “Middle March” (and began tuning her guitar in the hallway behind the stage). It was the most abstract piece of the set, and dedicated to the late Paul Motian in addition to Douglas’ mother. Neither hymn nor folk music, the piece was anchored by Oh’s bass while the others soloed or complemented one another at their freest, the rhythms expanding and contracting as they went. Mitchell was at his best here, but everyone’s playing left no doubt that this was first and foremost a formidable jazz quintet.

O’Donovan rejoined the band with her guitar for the album’s folkiest and most upbeat tune, the Ola Belle Reed bluegrass favorite “High on a Mountain,” which transforms bittersweet lyrics into something so bubbly Douglas could be seen joyously mouthing the words as O’Donovan sang them. O’Donovan’s lovely original “Glowing Heart” followed, and then the set proper ended with the Jean Sibelius hymn that gave the album its title, “Be Still, My Soul,” which featured O’Donovan’s graceful singing and glowing solos by Douglas, Irabagon and Mitchell.

Douglas returned to the stage with Mitchell, Oh and Penn to sneak in an encore between sets, explaining, “We’re going to keep playing until you quit clapping.” They played the somber benediction that closes the album, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Whither Must I Wander?” Douglas’ soaring solo flowed gracefully into Mitchell’s more understated one, Oh and Penn provided delicate underpinning to both, and together it was all lushly reverent.

The Cambridge performances would be followed immediately by two nights in Philadelphia, with two more scheduled for Chicago in mid-December. Let’s hope there are more. This is sophisticated yet accessible music that should appeal to jazz buffs with tastes expansive enough to include church music, folk and bluegrass. Or, for that matter, to anyone who has had and loved a mother.

Originally Published