Contempo Brings Out Best in Douglas
April 9, 2007
By Howard Reich, Tribune arts critic
For those with open ears — and minds — the past weekend produced unforgettable listening. The best of it attested to the caliber of musicians playing Chicago’s stages these days.
As jazz increasingly becomes a concert music, flourishing well beyond the nightclub, some of its most innovative performers are crafting music that aspires to new levels of subtlety and sophistication.
The protean trumpeter Dave Douglas seemed to be saying as much Saturday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art , where he played the second half of a genre-defying concert that opened with contemporary classical repertoire.
After hearing works by such classical innovators as the Japanese master Toru Takemitsu and the American visionary George Crumb, Douglas faced a predicament.
“What do we do?” he asked himself, as he told the capacity crowd at the MCA. The implication was that it’s not easy for a jazz quintet to follow the extraordinarily polished work of Contempo (the Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago , which organized this eclectic concert).
The answer, of course, was to play original music at a comparable level, or at least attempt to. Without question, Douglas and his quintet matched the polish and proficiency of the classical players, albeit in a boldly improvised jazz idiom.
Every piece that Douglas and his band played evoked a world of sound unto itself. From the soulful, blues-tinged phrases of his “Invocation” to the chorale-like passages of his “Tree and Shrub” to the whimsical, quasi-funk flavor of his “Earmarks,” Douglas and friends traversed a vast musical landscape.
Yet Douglas ‘ solos stood at the center of this ensemble’s achievements, each statement overflowing with intriguing, unexpected ideas.
With drummer Clarence Penn raising Cain behind him and bassist Scott Colley and keyboardist Uri Caine churning rhythms with nary a pause, this ensemble achieved tremendous musical momentum.
Nevertheless, one wished that Donny McCaslin — a poet of the tenor saxophone — might challenge Douglas , rather than merely defer to him. Whenever Douglas plays alongside a more assertive tenorist, the music acquires that much more texture and expressive intensity.
Even so, the Douglas quintet neatly counterbalanced the more formal music-making of Contempo, which produced its best work in the Chicago premiere of Josef Bardanashvili’s “Nekudot” for string sextet. Though harmonically conservative and melodically neo-romantic, the piece never tired the ear.
On Friday evening, in a still more exalted setting, two other jazz innovators played extended improvisations of considerable craft, though with mixed artistic results.
In the duets that opened their Friday night concert at Symphony Center , guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Brad Mehldau — artists of very different sensibilities — at first brought out the best in each other. Thanks to Mehldau’s probing pianism and iconoclastic spirit, Metheny generally avoided the trite, pop-lite aspects of his work. Once the duo expanded into a quartet, however, it didn’t take Metheny long to crank up the volume on bland, accompanying chords, often at the expense of Mehldau’s decidedly more substantive solos. Nevertheless, the craggy individuality of Mehldau’s playing consistently elevated the level of discourse.