LIVE: Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 4/13/17

May 9th, 2017, 4:00 pm by Greg
Dada People Quartet

Dave Douglas & Frank Woeste’s Dada People Quartet

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu

As a wise man once said, when life gives you lemons, make daiquiris… or something to that effect. Maybe it was just me that said that; the ’80s was a long strange decade. My point is this: When faced with a not-so-great scenario, the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall made the absolute best of a bad situation.

Suffice it to say that the crowd for trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Frank Woeste’s recent visit to Greater Nippertown could safely be described as “anemic.”

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But rather than spreading us all around that huge old concert space, TSBMH staff put chairs on the stage and turned the show into an intimate cabaret, with four of the best players in the world working only a few feet from us.

It was a stunning change in perspective, but that was perfectly appropriate when you consider the inspiration for Douglas & Woeste’s Greenleaf Music album Dada People: The expatriate American artist Man Ray and the Surrealist movement in 1920s France. That crusade was all about taking established perspective and flipping it onto its head after throwing it out a third-story window and kicking it down the street for a bit.

Douglas illustrated the movement’s cockeyed vision during the introduction to his towering composition “Oedipe,” when he talked about one of the movement’s members displaying a urinal as a “readymade” piece of art. The current term is “found objects,” but the concept is the same: Anything can be art if displayed properly. Douglas & Woeste’s music has art and passion and energy to spare, and it was displayed in the most amazing way possible.

Douglas was pretty amazed himself as Woeste, bassist Yasushi Nakamura, and drummer Clarence Penn settled in onstage behind him. “This is so great,” Douglas enthused. “If you guys want to get up and walk around, go ahead!” After giving a quick synopsis of Man Ray and Surrealism, Douglas began the group’s “jazzy way” of interpreting it all by counting in his hard-charging composition “Spork.” A lot of Douglas’ recent titles (like “Hawaiian Punch” and Miracle Gro”) seem to have come from recent trips to Target or Wal-Mart; in the context of this show, it was easy to picture an artist placing a used spork on a spot-lit pedestal and calling it a treatise on the disposable nature of our age.

Whatever the motivation behind the piece, the opener grabbed us all firmly by the ears and said, “You’re coming with ME!” The already-considerable power of the recorded version was easily surpassed by this up-close-and-personal take. Douglas’ tone was as clear and pure as it’s ever been, although he did wrap the bell of his instrument around the microphone to achieve a deeper tone reminiscent of a bass trombone. After that number, though, Douglas didn’t use the mic again, preferring to let the Hall’s world-renowned acoustics perform their usual magic. And magic they were: I was at the back of TSBMH during the colorful “Longings and Illusions,” and you could feel every note right down to your soul.

This was the first time I’d seen Douglas play in a quartet, and the first time I’d seen him without a reed player for a foil – and we’re talking reed wizards like Joe Lovano, Donny McCaslin and Marcus Strickland. But as with the recording of Dada People (one of the Top 10 Jazz2K Discs of 2016), I didn’t miss the extra soloist, because Woeste may be the best keyboard player Douglas has ever worked with.

Elegant when he had to be, rampant when he needed to be, and expressive to a fare-thee-well every single moment, the French master simply owned the Hall’s grand piano as glorious compositions like the ghost-filled “Montparnasse,” the bold & beautiful waltz “Mains Libre” and the head-spinning “Danger Dancer” astonished us with their color and depth. Woeste’s chemistry with Douglas was also a wonder to behold, as each supported the other brilliantly when they weren’t in direct musical conversation with each other.

The rhythm section has more to do in a quartet format, and both Yasushi Nakamura and Clarence Penn had the power and lyrical sense to make their own lasting marks on the proceedings. During “Spork,” they conducted their own detailed discourse while Douglas and Woeste hashed things out in front, and neither conversation stepped on the other or disturbed the groove in any way.

Bassist Nakamura (last seen in these parts backing Theo Hill at A Place For Jazz in 2015) is an absolute beast whose solos and comps affect both you and him physically; his solo on the hushed section of “Danger” swelled with muscle and aggression while serving the overall piece to perfection. Penn was one of my favorite drummers long before his 2014 release Monk: The Lost Files brought one of jazz’s most revolutionary icons firmly into the 21st century. Penn brought the noise just like I knew he would, but his best moments came when he was in Accent Mode, scratching drums with his fingertips on “Montaparnasse” and quietly hand-drumming towards the end of “Spork.”

Even if there had been a full house for this show, both the individual and collective performances would still have been immense. Dada People contains some of Douglas’ best work, and pairing those compositions with Woeste’s own creations resulted in a waterfall of unqualified beauty. But that would have been just another concert. What we had on TSBMH’s stage was a true interaction between artists and art lovers, and while we didn’t end up on our heads at the end of the street, the unique gift we were given – the gift of a new perspective – was both memorable and breathtaking.

Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas

Frank Woeste

Frank Woeste

Yasushi Nakamura

Yasushi Nakamura

Clarence Penn

Clarence Penn