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Dave Douglas


photos by Albert Brooks

Swyer Theatre - The Egg, Albany, NY
October 2, 2005

by J Hunter

Although it might… (Okay, okay, I'll start again.) Because it will spike Stanley Crouch's blood pressure, let's chalk up another success for Dave Douglas - not to mention another parallel between Douglas and the Dark Magus, Miles Davis.

In 1970, fresh off the revolutionary double album Bitches Brew (Columbia), Miles was charged with creating the soundtrack for a documentary on Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Instead of re-recording music of the period - the safe route Crouch confidante Wynton Marsalis took on a new Johnson documentary PBS premiered last year - Davis recorded a blues-rock classic that singes my speakers to this day. Recently, Douglas was commissioned by the Peekskill Theatre to create music for several short films by infamous silent-film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle - infamous for the 1922 rape/murder trial that destroyed his career, despite winning a complete acquittal.

Nowadays, Arbuckle would do a book tour, hug Oprah, and be back at work in a year. Instead, outrage from the trial caused the actor/director's work to be purged from the silent canon. Douglas just may bring it back to the forefront, thanks to Keystone (Greenleaf Music), a stunning set of compositions inspired by films like “Fatty's Tintype Tangle” and “Fatty & Mabel Adrift”. One night after premiering the work in Peekskill, Douglas brought the music and the films to The Egg.

Just as Davis took his own road to musically embody the toughness of Johnson, Douglas has created another collection of off-the-wall nouveaux-fusion to augment the bedlam produced by Arbuckle and his cohorts. Even the stage set was off the wall; the sextet was clustered on the left side of the stage, with most of the players facing away from the audience as films played behind and above them. It was weird until you got the message: “We're just the orchestra. Roscoe's the star.”

Douglas - obviously an ardent fan - pointedly refrained from calling Arbuckle by his nickname in any of his introductions. The trumpeter split time between playing and conducting to the aforementioned films, as well as to one one-reeler, “Fatty's Plucky Pup.” All three shone with side-splitting hilarity, as Arbuckle showed the physical humor that had to inspire Jackie Gleason's “Pour Soul”. And though Douglas' music is as far from Arbuckle's time as Miles' was from the age of Jack Johnson, you couldn't help but accept Douglas' work, because it was as appropriate as it was chaotic.

Understand that “chaotic” does not mean “out of control” - at least not in this case. While Arbuckle's character seems to be lost in a world not of his making, the physical control Arbuckle the actor displayed was phenomenal, and on a par with Chaplin's best work. Douglas' accompanying music sounds like musical anarchy, but is actually tightly controlled; Douglas' band worked exclusively from notes balanced on lit music stands, and took all cues from Douglas as the films went on. There may have been room to move in “The Real Roscoe” - the only tune not accompanied by a film - but everything else had to move to the movie.

Arbuckle's films were groundbreaking in their use of what was then a virgin technology; speeded-up film and backwards loops were the norm for Arbuckle's work, and his cinematography was way ahead of the work of the time. Today's technology gives Douglas' work edge and color, thanks to the eerie Fender Rhodes of Adam Benjamin and the unpredictable samples of DJ Jahi Sundance. (Sundance and Keystone drummer Gene Lake are the sons of avant-jazz saxman Oliver Lake.) And as Davis had Wayne Shorter, Douglas has Marcus Strickland. Hey, the parallel's justified - Strickland's that good. The trumpet/sax combo work seamlessly together, and Strickland added depth to the band's palate with sharp solos and tasty fills on tenor and soprano.

Along with adding another terrific chapter to his discography, Douglas may bring long-overdue attention (if not redemption) to a much-maligned performer. And if Crouch's BP jumps a little bit… well, you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.