Over the years trumpeter Dave Douglas has recorded tributes to many of his musical heroes, among them trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Mary Lou Williams, and singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell. But we're not talking about covers or even interpretations here--each of these albums has been dominated by original material designed to reflect the aesthetic and achievements of the honoree. Witness (Bluebird/RCA) is his latest tribute project, but this time he's not saluting other musicians. The album was inspired by a newspaper story Douglas read in Italy during "the NATO assault on Yugoslavia" about the windfall munitions manufacturers were experiencing because of the attacks. "This is a positive response that celebrates artists and activists who have persisted in making direct nonviolent statements, often in the face of violence and at great personal risk," he explains. (Some of his choices, like Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said and Pakistani activist Eqbal Ahmad, seem rather prescient in light of recent events.) It's Douglas's first overtly political work, but nearly all the political content is relegated to the liner notes; with the exception of the epic "Mahfouz," a nod to Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz that includes mumbled spoken word by Tom Waits, all the tunes are instrumental. The album's as ambitious musically as it is thematically, but it's not always successful: Douglas leads the largest group he's worked with, ten people who fill in his decidedly abstract compositions with a wide range of colors, from the spectral electronics of Ikue Mori to the cool vibe and marimba patterns of Bryan Carrott to the clever sampling of Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda. The unwieldy jumble of sounds works best on more concise pieces: the appropriately frenetic "Ruckus," an appreciation of direct-action protesters the Ruckus Society; the title track, which, thanks to Joe Daley's tuba puffing, recalls Henry Threadgill's recent work; and the wonderfully chaotic "Kidnapping Kissinger," a tangled string of quick jump cuts that suggests the cartoon aesthetic of the trumpeter's sometime collaborator John Zorn. But on some of the lengthier numbers, like "Mahfouz," you can't see the forest for the trees. The scaled-down group he brings to Chicago might alleviate the problem: reedist Chris Speed, drummer Michael Sarin, and bassist Brad Jones will be joined by laptop improviser Mori and keyboardists Jamie Saft and Craig Taborn, the latter a collaborator of both saxist James Carter and techno giant Carl Craig. Thursday, October 11, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.