Trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Dave Douglas was nominated for a Grammy Award following the release of 2005's Keystone, an album inspired by Fatty Arbuckle and recorded as a soundtrack to Arbuckle short films. Initially inspired by and set to accompany the films of Buster Keaton, that group -- Douglas, DJ Olive, Gene Lake, Brad Jones, Marcus Strickland, and Jamie Saft -- created an altogether modern sound that reflected the humor, drama, and tension in Keaton's films. It differed in form and content from his other electric recordings -- and from the music made by his standard quintet that used a Fender Rhodes instead of an acoustic piano. The Keystone band was very successful creatively. Its lineup offered a new series of possibilities for Douglas to explore an ever-evolving sense of harmony, color, and -- most importantly -- the post-production work that began with Freak In in 2003. This time out, the band is called Keystone, and there is only one personnel change: Saft, who played Wurlitzer, has been replaced with Adam Benjamin on the Rhodes piano. The music on Moonshine, like Keystone, was inspired by a Fatty Arbuckle film from 1917 of the same name and other silent movies from the late comic actor's catalog. But Douglas is careful to point out in his liner notes that these are not merely soundtracks as the music on the previous offering had been. He says that after playing the music from Keystone with the films, he wanted to shut off the projector and let the band's music go its own way; that it was begging for release from the images. Keystone became a working unit with a different aesthetic than Douglas' regular quintet. Moonshine was recorded live in front of an invited studio audience. The gathering offered all the possibilities that shifting and interacting energies in a live setting could offer and a sound booth could not.
The differences between the albums Keystone and Moonshine are subtle yet profound. The continuity between them is there, but this music also evolves from the quintet's more vanguard investigations, too, while remaining very accessible and rhythmically centered. There are two reasons for this: the looseness of the grooves on the one hand, and the rather elaborate post-production work on the other. Most noticeable are the varying textures that DJ Olive brings to the rhythm section. He no longer has a fixed role in the ensemble: he is free to move into and out of the rhythmic palette as well as textural and melodic ones, and the kind of editing Douglas did in the studio no doubt enhances this. Olive offers sounds, samples, beats, and ambiences that would have seemed out of place on the earlier album. The other difference is the central role of the Fender Rhodes. Benjamin's playing is filled with dissonances, distortion, dirty, funky sounds, and sustained reverb that are a world away from Uri Caine's use of the instrument in the quintet. Some of the album's standouts include the future funk of the title track that has its roots -- one suspects -- in Weather Report's Sweetnighter album and the J.B.'s' instrumental workouts, the former, by the way the Rhodes bubbles and roils, creating an evolving groove cave, distorting and crackling in the speakers. Jones' rocking dubby bassline holds it down on the opposite end, as breakbeats, scratches, beats, and samples add heft to that bottom end. The solo by Douglas is actually quite melodic and elegant, to lighten it up, but it's followed by Strickland's more insistent, punchy, near honking one right after, with rhythm & blues phrasing as well as tenor genius David Murray's sense of knotty soul. "Married Life" begins slowly, with the Rhodes sounding like a guitar with some floating sample of a female singing that moves along a scarred, mutant jazz line. It invokes the kind of lyric interplay Douglas is known for, but it becomes a downright kind of avant funk. Tempos change rapidly and the established textures give way to new ones in a blink. The dynamics shift so often it feels more like a suite than a single tune.
"Kitten" is just pure rhythm -- but with the Rhodes so utterly distorted as it plays a five-note riff repeatedly, it sounds like a death metal guitar; add blastbeats that alternate with nasty breaks by Lake, and it's like sci-fi future funk. When the melody on the horns does come bursting in, it's more to underscore the mutant riffing than to counter it -- too bad this cut is only four and a half minutes long. The set ends with the ten-minute "Tough," with DJ Olive getting the nod to lay out the scratching, and synthetic beats that strut between popping old-school hip-hop, Washington, D.C.-styled go-go drumming, and sampled chanted choruses. The horns adopt a fragment and turn into an exploratory, labyrinthine melody for a few minutes before it all comes falling out on the groove side like drunks from a party when Douglas interacts with the piano and bassline in his killer solo. He pushes his trumpet right into the soul-jazz groove of '60s Blue Note. Strickland plays off bop and M-Base freakiness and pops it all to the outside for a bit before he too succumbs to the manic percussion jump and bump. DJ Olive's work on this set, along with Benjamin's, creates a wild, expansive palette for this band to explore in the future. The music is hip and in your face, but it's strange, too -- funny and completely dark often simultaneously. But it is never morose or depressing. This is not "jazz" in the conventional (read: conservative) sense, but without the jazz heritage, this creative tour de force of 21st century jazz-funk wouldn't -- and probably couldn't -- exist. Moonshine is a(nother) monster outing by Douglas.