On Strange Liberation -- a play on a phrase of Martin Luther King's; he once said that the Vietnamese must have seen Americans as "strange liberators" -- trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas expands his quintet to realize a long-held ambition: to have guitarist Bill Frisell in the ranks of his group. Douglas has once again stepped back from the precipice of his intense gaze at the musical landscape of American culture and turned his focus directly and intensely toward jazz for this set. Along with Frisell, pianist Uri Caine, saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn join Douglas for an electric jazz outing that falls far outside the purview of "fusion."Douglas has obviously composed these works with Frisell in mind, and this is his most saturated jazz date in some time. His playing here is front-line and full of his trademark counterpoint and atmospheric fills, as Douglas engages both the pastoral nature and the complexity of his harmonic view, making Caine a conflating bridge between the horns, guitar, and rhythm section. The album starts with a sparse melodic figure that borders on modalism in "A Single Sky,"Frisell's microphonics holding the edges of the piece in check as Douglas and Potter weave through Caine's beautiful chord voicings in a minor progression. The title track uses a blues framework that allows Caine to play a skeletal funk vamp on his Rhodes in order to bring Douglas and Potter into the fore as Frisell paints the backdrop deep blue until it's his turn to solo. There are silences in the margins and they are used as an improvisational device, imposing themselves from outside on the players.
"Frisell's Dream" and "Mountains from the Train" could have been on one of Frisell's own recordings. The latter is a mellow, pastoral soundscape with guitars played backwards and forwards and harmonics floating freely in the solo spaces that surround the melody -- a languid and unhurried line full of color, space, and texture played by the horns.Frisell's melodicism is played inversely here, and Caine fills in the dots. On "Frisell's Dream," an elegant jazz classicism is evoked in the head where blues, swing, and Aaron Copland's wit are on display in a knotty little melodic figure that gives way to an open-chorded Americana that is now Frisell's signature. And on "The Jones," the funky mischief of Thelonious Monk is touched upon in the melody as Caine muscles up the middle and punches throughDouglas' lines as Penn's rim shots accent the edges of the time signature. Potter too climbs aboard the melody andFrisell once again becomes the guitarist as impressionist painter before Caine deftly wraps a knockout heavily arpeggiated solo through the entire proceeding and changes the pace. Strange Liberation is a laid-back record in terms of its dynamics, but in its imagination and depth it is one of the high marks of Douglas' thus far prolific career. Compositionally it is head and shoulders above most of the stuff out there, and in terms of the taste in its performance and elocution it is virtually untouchable