An Explosion of Happy

David DominiqueMask (Orenda, 2018)

daviddominique-mask-500A manic, cartoony jazz sound is always welcome, but sometimes it can be a little too much. Mask is full of tricky octet charts that toy with you: a theme will repeat way too many times, or slow down again and again to the point of absurdity. Grooves get cut off abruptly. Electric guitar makes a screaming appearance and then just vanishes.

It’s all executed with crisp, geometric precision, as on the staggering hot-jazz explosion of “The Wee of Us.” But you’ve got to be in the mood for this stuff. The joy in here is relentless, and the cleverness can start to grate, especially when Dominique plays games with repetition. Any song in this collection would be a delightful surprise if snuck into a mainstream set. Together, they teeter between exhilarating and exhausting.

Dominique means well, though. Mask amps up certain elements from his previous album, Ritual, and I do like where his ideas are coming from. There’s an upbeat sense of rebellion here, and a risky dash of humor.

The flute line in “Gotta Fumble” keeps shifting just slightly, for the kind of pleasant disorientation you get from prog rock. “To Dave Treut” is my favorite track, flipping between a buzzy sprint and a swingy, slower-tempo theme. A calmer soloing section features tangly improvising on viola while a steady beat soldiers on in the background.

That violist is Lauren Elizabeth Baba, who runs a big band of her own, the BABAorchestra. It’s a more concretely “jazz” project but it shares a touch of the irreverence of Dominque’s band and is worth hearing.

Not the Same Big-Band ‘Ritual’

David DominiqueRitual (self-released, 2013)

Source: Bandcamp; click to go thereRitual is a bustling set of short compositions that draw a big-horned big-band sound out of a mid-sized ensemble. Even lacking the size, it’s got that big-band character, with forceful melodies barked out by the horns, and snatches of violin or electric guitar popping up against the strident drums.

It’s relentlessly happy (even the slower and sadder songs have a playful feeling to them) and nice and loud.

It’s all in service to David Dominique’s compositions, which include nooks, crannies, and trap doors where the players get to improvise.

“My goal is that moving forward in my work there will be very few, if any, individual ‘solos,'” Dominique told me via email. “I like employing those players’ improvisatory creativity as a layer, rather than as an individual solo isolated within a tune. I also prefer democratic group improvisation to individual solos.”

A jazz composition is a malleable creature by nature, “the same song a million times in different ways,” as Stephin Merritt once put it. But there’s a formula that turns the idea inside-out — one where the sanctity of the composition is written in stone, but the stone says you get to doodle around the margins. That approach is closer to the through-composed model of classical music or even some prog rock, and it produces some fun results here.

Some of the most interesting moments on Ritual crop up in the form of group improvising. “Mulatto Shuffle” dissolves unexpectedly into a disassociated space, a quiet break before rebuilding into a new form. (Most of the songs flit from one non-recurring theme to another.) “Ritual 2/Dirge,” the only truly sparse song on the album, drifts purposefully, driven by small percussion outbursts and, later, an insistent flute solo — it’s different from the others, and it’s really nice.

Playing modern jazz means being willing to risk painting yourself into a corner, so to speak, and that’s what I like about “Ritual 4/Release.” After a manic opening, powered by hard-rocking drums, it phases into an improv breakdown that keeps trying to restart, with a couple of horns quietly playing the next theme before the rest of the group pulls things back into a quiet, artsy place — a game that eventually resolves, but you get the feeling the band has to work at finding a way out.

Check it all out on Bandcamp.