Dave Douglas and Dave Holland are among the latest to start their own imprints, a current trend in jazz with roots in the 1950s, when Dizzy Gillespie launched Dee Gee, Charles Mingus and Max Roach ran Debut, and Sun Ra began documenting himself on El Saturn. The most ambitious vanity label of them all—and probably the most historically significant—was Michael Mantler and Carla Bley’s JCOA, whose first two releases (Jazz Composer’s Orchestra in 1968, followed by Escalator Over the Hill three years later) showed it was possible to realize large-scale productions without big-label bucks. And from Escalator to midway through the second Reagan administration, Bley and Mantler’s New Music Distribution Service functioned as a clearinghouse for DIY releases by jazz outsiders and experimentalists from the classical fringe (one of whom grew up to be Philip Glass). The other crucial artist-run co-op of the ’70s was Strata-East, started by Charles Tolliver and Stanley Cowell as a step toward greater black self-reliance.
The ’70s were dire for jazz commercially, and what with corporate consolidation and pressure on jazz departments to keep up with Diana Krall and Norah Jones, the next few years could be a replay. If kept in print long enough, jazz albums eventually earn back their meager production costs and more, but the thinking at the majors seems to be that posterity is for losers. Because specialty and import labels can’t pick up all the slack, it looks like we’re going to be seeing more and more musicians financing their own recordings and either following Maria Schneider’s example and selling exclusively online (a crucial new option) or signing distribution deals with indies—the route chosen by Branford Marsalis and now Douglas and Holland.
Douglas’s finest work since Charms of the Night Sky and A Thousand Evenings with his drummerless quartet of the late ’90s, Mountain Passages offers 13 thematically linked pieces commissioned by the Sound of the Dolomites, an annual festival combining performances and mountain hiking in the Italian Alps, and loosely based on Douglas’s impressions of Ladino, the folk music of the Sephardic Jews who settled in the Fassa region following their expulsion from Spain in 1492. In other words, not exactly RCA’s kind of project. Douglas’s stretch with RCA coincided with what I think of as his Blue Mitchell period, five years or so during which he sought to put his own warp on hard bop, sanctified funk, and Miles’s modes. His RCA albums, including his Strange Interlude swan song, were solid enough, but the free (and semi-free) improvisations on last year’s Bow River Falls (on Koch) had more edge, and Mountain Passages is a leap for him as a composer.
Only part of the album’s charm lies in its novel instrumentation—Douglas’s trumpet, Michael Moore’s alto and clarinet, Peggy Lee’s cello, Marcus Rojas’s tuba, and Dylan van der Schyff’s drums. The flavor is in the clever deployment: Douglas’s growls and bent notes (his climactic solo on “Bury Me Standing”), van der Schyff’s bombs and traps sculptures, Lee’s impersonations of a walking bass or a string quartet, Rojas’s bebop John Philip Sousa, and the overlap between the two lead horns (Douglas loves canons and rounds) all creating the illusion of a full orchestra in waiting. Somehow darkest at their most whimsical (the album is dedicated to Douglas’s father, himself a mountain walker, who died shortly before it was recorded), these pieces often sound like expansions of folk themes, though I know too little about any sort of Ladino, including Fassa, to say for sure. Moore’s clarinet is positively hazan-like on “North Point Memorial,” and along with the Sephardic echoes, there are traces of Carla Bley, Henry Threadgill (the tumult announcing “A Nasty Spill”), Bach (“Gumshoe” is an air, more or less), and Monk (the title “Off Major” would be a giveaway even without the stride bass). But given that the closest similarities are to the lucid fanfares on his own In Our Lifetime (1994) and to his rejiggling of Eastern European folk with the Tiny Bell Trio, anyone vaguely familiar with Douglas should at once recognize this as his.
Without the jewel box in hand, I might not know whose big band I was hearing on Holland’s Overtime, though I’d be impressed enough to wonder. In a field of music lacking a specific literature for each instrument, where trumpeters and saxophonists have always transposed each other’s patterns and singers imitate horns even as horns seek to approximate vox humana, jazz composers practice their own form of role reversal. Whereas Mountain Passages is an example of using every trick in the book to give a small group the depth and thrust of a big band, Overtime is the reverse, an attempt to allow a big band the spontaneity of a small group—namely bassist Holland’s own long-standing quintet, whose current members (saxophonist Chris Potter, trombonist Robin Eubanks, vibist Steve Nelson, and drummer Billy Kilson) form the nucleus of his 13-piece orchestra. Why Holland left ECM after 30 years of carte blanche I have no idea, unless, as with the founders of Strata-East way back when, it had something to do with ownership of his masters. Holland’s mature aesthetic has always been closer to that of classic Blue Note anyway, and the devices from that era he uses in scoring for orchestra—ostinatos, polyrhythms and modified funk eighths, and lots of counterpoint—are the same ones that define his quintet. There is little to no voicing across sections, and with Nelson playing a largely coloristic role, it’s often as though the sections are comping for the soloists in place of a missing piano. Although the track I keep playing is Eubanks’s pounding and comically austere “Mental Images,” Holland’s writing is state-of-the-art hard bop. The soloists can’t be faulted, either, with baritonist Gary Smuylan taking top honors for his suave and commanding choruses on “A Time Remembered,” the third movement of Holland’s four-part, 50-minute Monterey Suite. Yet something is missing. To the extent that Holland has succeeded in enlarging his quintet, maybe it’s a big band.