LJF 2018: Dave Douglas's Uplift

Simon Adams is partially uplifted by Dave Douglas's new outfit, Uplift, featuring Bill Laswell and Mary Halvorson, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall

According to Dave Douglas, Uplift perform “music towards positive action,” an artistic response to the many horrors currently afflicting his American homeland. Douglas (pictured right at the QEH by John Watson) wears his heart on his sleeve and proceeds from the music go to numerous good causes, so what’s not to like?

Well, while uplifting by name, much of the music – other than the fast, anthemic ending piece – was rather downbeat for much of the time, slow and sometimes gloomy in the face of events rather than rising up and fighting back.

I’d be hard pressed to define exactly what I heard tonight (16 Nov 2018), but the three-guitar instrumentation and jazz-rock drumming bring to mind mid-1970s electric Miles, Douglas’s trumpet lead confirming that view. Each piece developed using long-form, often wayward melodic lines, the emphasis as much on the individual sound and techniques of each instrument as on their collective coherence.

Douglas, as ever, played ebullient trumpet, punching out long lines of burnished notes while his mute playing was subtle and evocative. Opposite him, tenor sax and alto clarinettist Jon Irabagon was provocative and pertinent, his alto clarinet a rarely heard delight. Of the guitarists, the wonderful Mary Halvorson cut across the music with her filigree, amplified guitar lines, all scrunches of notes and jagged interjections, her ideas often against the flow, while electric guitarist Rafik Batia was given occasional room to let rip. Bill Laswell on bass, however, disappointed, his contributions perfunctory and uninspired, despite their rumbling volume. The disappointment was not his fault, however, for he was given little opportunity to delight an audience the vast majority of whom probably came to hear him above the others. Drummer Ches Smith was ideal for this music, his constantly shifting patterns and creative drum play a delight to hear. Oddly, he had to stand up to work the top cymbal, and since he is well over six foot, he certainly made an impression.

Some gigs work and others don’t. I have always admired Dave Douglas, both for his distinctive style but also for his willingness to change direction and walk a new path. The audience’s response showed I was in a minority in finding his new band a little aimless and underpowered, despite their melodic delights. But its early days and this is a band of outstanding players that has the ability to transform this music as they get to know it better.

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