All the pieces were performed by Dave Douglas, the four Westerlies and stellar independent percussionist Rudy Royston.
The opening piece, Swing State, working on evocations of Richard Rodgers’ Oklahoma melodies, began with a slowish, quasi-leisurely calling and responding, begun, set down and then begun again as though the piece was getting ready to begin. Humor and melancholy infused this preface, and then a big, generous urban dirge emerged, a wide, steady summoning to a celebratory march; within it, Douglas offered up a lovely, virtuosic wail, which in turn liberated the Westerlies quartet and drummer to their own jazz conversation. The 12-minute piece at its conclusion returned to memory, speculation, reflection … and huge applause.
Douglas then addressed the audience. “This is all new music, with new people,” he said. “No one’s heard this before, and it’s all a preview of what’s new,” referring to the upcoming Festival of New Trumpet Music – FONT Music – which will take place here in New York City from September 19 – 26, 2016.
The short second piece, Bunting, was a wild and exhilarating play of push and pull, excitement and reflection, an examination of interconnections among freedom and control. The even shorter – five minute – third piece, Hovering, had the most workshop feel of all the works of the evening. In this work, Douglas both played his trumpet and directed as all the musicians presented short melodies and complex rhythms in a work whose structure seemed, before its sudden end, song-like: one or two brief solos as “stanzas” alternated with and increasingly familiar “chorus.”
Worlds Beyond the Sky, a rich and gorgeous piece, followed. Here, trumpets and trombones were played as both Romantic symphonic instruments and conveyers of absolutely modern sound, breath and metal meeting in experiment, as the music explored nuances of eloquence and urgency. Beautiful tunes were carried in dense, ornate rhythms; this piece invited listeners into an experience of internal, spiritual expansion. The last new piece on the program, American Aphorism, was elegantly witty, an optimistic, confident sextet in which Royston on drums was more featured than in any other work. The energy of this piece – the shape of its forward movement – was thrilling.
The final two works of the evening were taken from Douglas’ compositions for his group Brass Ecstasy. Safeway, an almost unbearably mournful response to the 2011 mass shooting in Arizona now best known for Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s survival of it, brought some audience members to tears. And then Spirit Moves, a massive, big-sweep, open-hearted affirmation of creative possibility, restored the audience to optimism. In this last piece, each musician had a brief fabulous spotlight solo before the final bracing, sweeping finish; it was a particularly happy end-of-concert traditional protocol, a big-as-heaven assertion that each of us has a place and purpose in the created universe.
More than once during the evening, Douglas spoke with the audience about the human and culture issues of which music-making is a part. He reflected on the disturbing quality of current political events, noting,“It’s a hard thing, to know what to do.” Part of the answer lies in engagement and support of the creative arts, of “music, poetry, architecture … our culture, our heritage, what we have in common world-wide.” The continued vitality of FONT Music, founded by Douglas and Roy Campbell in 2002, contributes to vigorous creative resistance to erosions of human dignity within our current society. Douglas’ work – his interconnected, multifaceted activities as performer, composer and teacher, and his leadership in the vibrant contemporary trumpet community – dispels pessimism about human potential for good.
But the real excitement of the evening wasn’t about appreciation and gratitude for imaginative, innovative administrative of performing arts projects. It wasn’t even about the compelling call to a citizenly engagement of musicians and audiences alike – “trumpeters and civilians” – in which creative artists function as public conscience.
The evening’s excitement was about the music itself.
The Westerlies, used to composing their own works and performing them from memory, proved to be splendid partners for Douglas’ creative process: they brought a whole range of their own jazz, traditional, and formal classical vocabularies to extended improvised sequences set by Douglas’ anchor themes. The Westerlies’ tightly trusting habits of collaboration and intuitive responsiveness to each other’s musicianship translated to thrilling music-making with Douglas; Royston’s percussion presence provided both a secure under-girding and an expansion of textural possibilities.
The Douglas-Westerlies music, whether its subject is lament or celebration, protest or affirmation, is artistically coherent: testing and stretching traditional genres, the music is about forward movement, about the exploration of “Great American Themes” as they end in felicitously determined encouragement and optimism. This music’s informing energy and spirit shine and summon. Audience and listeners are invited into a musical experience in which history provides context, inspiration and goad; references to the political, musical and cultural past do not tether the music to old habits but liberate it for new conversations. Together, Douglas, Royston and the Westerlies generated a warm and rich brass-and-percussion sound; the Westerlies’ happy virtuosity, discipline and irrepressible affection for the full range of their instruments’ sounds make them a perfect collaborative partner for Douglas’ genre mixing and generously imaginative expansion of the artistic possibilities of trumpet, trombone and drums.
It was a wonderful evening of adventurous and bracing brass music, filled with lively accomplishments of the present moment and tantalizing promise for the future.
Dave Douglas Meets The Westerlies (March 30, 2016)
Ernst C. Stiefel Concert Hall
The New School Mannes
55 West 13th Street, in Manhattan
Running time: one hour and 15 minutes without an intermission