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Dave Douglas - Gifts (Greenleaf)

10 April 2024

Trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas is an artist who remains interesting and relevant for a simple reason: he always moves forward. He could’ve simply stuck to his popular bands, specifically his acoustic quintet and his electronica group Keystone, and coasted into the jazz history books. But instead Douglas frequently changes it up, working with different combinations of players and using their distinctive talents to shape the vision of each album.

For Gifts, Douglas enlisted acclaimed saxophonist/former student James Brandon Lewis and Son Lux guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, who helped create the soundtrack for the Oscar-laden film Everything Everywhere All at Once. The blend of two masterful jazz musicians with a pair of post rock heroes plays to the strengths of both – Bhatia and Chang paint colorful, atmospheric backgrounds drawn from rock and minimalist classical music, while Douglas and Lewis play blues and bop across and within them. That dry description makes it sound like two teams working alongside, rather than with, each other, but that’s not true. As it happens, Bhatia’s minimalist lines and electronic manipulations counterbalance Chang’s busy kit work, a foundation that leaves the right number of empty spaces into which the horn players can glide.

While that’s impressive enough for originals like “Seven Years Ago,” “Kind of Teal,” and the title epic, it’s especially wondrous on a suite of Billy Strayhorn tunes in the first half. Known for some of the most memorable classics in the Duke Ellington catalog, it turns out that Strayhorn’s music fits right in with this group’s mission, with “Take the ‘A’ Train” becoming a bluesy groover and “Blood Count” evolving from a gorgeous ballad to a menacing alien soundtrack. Both the chemistry and the imagination of its creators make Gifts yet another standout in Douglas’ catalog.