Dave Douglas’ Take on Modern Chamber Music

Dave Douglas & Monash Art EnsembleFabliaux (Greenleaf, 2015)

dave-douglas-monash-art-ensemble-fabliaux-greenleafYou might get scared by the first strains of “Forbidden Flags,” which opens Fabliaux with regal horns indicating the start of a knightly joust or a Shakespeare play.

But there’s jazz to be had here, nestled into a setting of new chamber music. The Dave Douglas you know and love is in there as well. He’s teamed up with the Monash Art Ensemble, an Australian collective that commissions new works including a 2014 album recorded with George Lewis, to create a jazz/new-music mix, the work of a creative big band with flair.

The regal opening and the medieval album cover are nods to¬† Fabliaux‘s inspiration, the 14th-century French composers of the Ars Nova. (Wrong century for Shakespeare.) The concept here is not about the sound of 14th-century music; it seems to be more about building off the rhythmic ideas like hocketing or specific types of counterpoint. The music produced by the ensemble — comprised of four quartet ensembles (strings, brass, winds, percussion) plus electronics — flashes through a variety of tempraments and sounds, in the end producing something that really could sit in the jazz section.

“Forbidden Flags” soon gives way to more big-band-sounding harmonies backing a trumpet solo (Douglas himself, I assume). “Legions” has the horns charting bold big-band chords behind the opening electric piano solo and the cool 7/8 rhythm.

“Tower of the Winds” uses quirky woodwind melodies to re-create a ’50s-style soundtrack for walking down a sunny Manhattan street. Later, it mashes the winds and brass into some complex intertwining that sets up dynamic drum and electronics solos.

Most pieces move like clockwork with the slick, precise, sound of well-executed charts, but Fabliaux is also full of creative soloing. “Legions,” for instance, packs some bright, engaging solos from sax, trumpet, and violin.

The composing is packed with twists; not every piece is a big-band chart. “Whirlwind” is a post-minimalist experiment, built of little repeating riffs mixed together in queasy harmonies and not-quite-overlapping cycles. The start of the piece lives up to the title. “Gears” has a tumbling feeling of out-of-phase rhythms, a giant machine that seems chaotic and lumbering but is really working under its own logic.

Even though Fabliaux is a Dave Douglas composition, I’m left feeling like it’s more a Monash album than a Dave Douglas album. It’s a good introduction to the ensemble, anyway, and leaves me interested in hearing what else they can do.