Trumpeter Dave Douglas has led a lot of groups since emerging onto the global jazz scene in the late 1980s, including the Tiny Bell Trio; a quintet that included violin, cello, bass, and drums; a quartet; and a sextet. He also worked with Anthony Braxton, Myra Melford, and John Zorn, mostly as a member of Masada. He continued to create new contexts for his highly individualistic and expressive trumpet playing throughout the 2000s, and in 2003 formed his own Greenleaf label to release his music.
In 2012, Douglas released Be Still, an album featuring vocalist and guitarist Aoife O’Donovan, of the bluegrass group Crooked Still, and a brand new band: saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston. The group members all shared Douglas’s ability to shift back and forth between avant-garde exploration and traditional, melodic post-bop. The music on Be Still was frequently soft and hushed; six of the nine tracks were hymns and folk songs Douglas’s late mother had asked him to perform at her funeral (she died in 2011). O’Donovan’s voice is almost a whisper, even on more uptempo pieces like “High on a Mountain.” Hearing Irabagon and Royston, in particular, digging into these back-country tunes was particularly fascinating. The drummer’s own 2018 album, Flatbed Buggy, has some of this same feeling at times.
A year later, Douglas and the quintet returned with Time Travel, a more swinging and hard-boppish album. They were stretching out more, really exploring the music and letting it take them away—where Be Still featured nine tracks in 43 minutes, Time Travel had only seven in 54, the longest of which was the 10:11 closer, “The Pigeon and the Pie.” There’s still a meditative quality to the compositions and the various players’ improvisations, but the pieces frequently build to strong crescendos, and Mitchell, Oh and Royston are a tightly connected team.
In 2015, the quintet released its (to date) final recording, Brazen Heart, another conventionally jazzy record, but one which maintained a connection to traditional folk and gospel music with versions of “Deep River” and “There is a Balm in Gilead.” A weird sub-theme of the album was song titles having to do with liquids: in addition to “Deep River” and “Variable Current,” there were “Hawaiian Punch,” “Miracle Gro,” and “Ocean Spray.” It was the longest of the group’s three releases, offering 11 tracks in 65 minutes.
To celebrate the release of Brazen Heart, Douglas booked a week of gigs at the Jazz Standard in New York: two sets a night from Thursday through Sunday, November 19 through 22, 2015. All eight shows were recorded, and released digitally. They’ve now been packaged as four two-CD sets, and are available from Greenleaf either separately or as a bundle called, appropriately, Brazen Heart Live at Jazz Standard.
Over the course of these eight sets, the quintet performs every piece from Brazen Heart and Time Travel, and seven of nine pieces from Be Still, leaving out only “High on a Mountain” and “Living Streams.” One track, “The Pigeon and the Pie” from Time Travel, is paired with “My Cares are Down Below,” from the 2013 album Pathways, which featured O’Donovan, Greg Tardy on clarinet and tenor sax, Josh Roseman on trombone, Uri Caine on piano, Oh, and Clarence Penn on drums.
There aren’t that many sets of this type. There’s one documenting Sonny Rollins‘ week at the Village Gate in 1962, a set of performances which ultimately yielded the album Our Man in Jazz; there’s Miles Davis‘s Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965; there’s Cecil Taylor‘s 2 Ts for a Lovely T, which preserves ten sets by his Feel Trio with bassist William Parker and drummer Tony Oxley; and Keith Jarrett‘s At the Blue Note offers six sets, recorded over three nights. But in general, jazz fans don’t get the chance to hear a band working steadily over multiple performances in this way.
The live versions of these pieces are quite different from the studio recordings, while remaining utterly recognizable. They don’t take apart the melodies, turning phrases into oblique hints, the way the Miles Davis Quintet did with the standards and other pieces they performed—instead, they radically extend them, allowing solos to go as long as they need to. “Going Somewhere With You,” a five-minute piece on Be Still, is performed twice, and the shorter of the two runs 14:48. “Bridge to Nowhere,” 8:26 on Time Travel, becomes a staggering 23:29 journey at the beginning of the final Sunday night set.
The full eight-CD package is available on Bandcamp for the exact same price—$50—as the digital version. If you’ve heard the studio albums, it’s absolutely essential, but even if you haven’t, it’s a great way to explore the work of a very exciting and too-short-lived band.