Time for a new ABS feature. On Tuesdays, I, the editor, will be recommending things for you. Mostly recorded music to listen to, but also books to read, and shows to go see, and other things I haven't thought up yet. There are a lot of these good things being produced in jazz, and we don't discuss enough of them, and this is a jazz blog, so that needs to be fixed. It'll be kind of like an "editor's picks" section. In fact, it will be that.
This week: The three new releases by Dave Douglas, and the Greenleaf Cloud Player they can be heard on.
The trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas has released three albums' worth of music in under five months. That's a lot.
How did he do it? A few thoughts:
Dave Douglas is a super-prolific composer. You know how jazz journalism convention often identifies people as "[instrumentalist] and composer"? Sometimes it feels a little bit like, "OK, you wrote a few blues heads, that's nice." Other times, it properly credits the musician for the fact that he regularly generates original melodies, harmonies that make sense and interlocking arrangements for three to 21 different parts. Some jazz musicians find time to concentrate on this in particular, and others largely execute those visions for others. Dave is of the former category.
Dave Douglas is a pretty savvy businessman. He's generally successful as a touring artist. He has his own record label, Greenleaf Music, which he's written about for us. That means he has a few folks working to bring his visions to life, both in producing music recordings and distributing them. He knows how to do things like apply for grants. He can thusly afford three recording sessions' worth of studio time that less successful musicians cannot. And he's devised a unique way of releasing these recordings, which brings us to ...
Dave Douglas is experimenting with format here. He's calling these latest three records the Greenleaf Portable Series — the idea being that they're shorter, more informal sessions released only in digital formats. So far, the three GPS releases are somewhere between 30 and 50 minutes each, sort of like the LP era — so he didn't necessarily road-test this material with a working band and have to come up with two more tunes, as he might have on a "real" album album. Douglas even discussed this in the promotional copy: "Also the idea of shorter, more informal sessions appealed to me as it harked back to the way jazz records used to be made. The GPS gave me an outlet for a lot of new tunes and presented me with a way to record with some musicians I really admire but would rarely get to play with."
Compared to pressing and selling CDs, all this is affordable for both producer and consumer. You can buy each of these GPS records for $5 a pop as a high-quality MP3, or $7 as a lossless FLAC set. Or you can subscribe to the entire Greenleaf Music catalog for on-demand streaming ... more on that soon. First — what does this music sound like?
GPS 1, called Rare Metals is from a band I know and like, Brass Ecstasy. It's Douglas' mini brass band, a quintet with plenty of touring experience. And he came up with a bunch of new tunes for it, including an arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life":
GPS 2 is a bit of an all-star band, at least for those who follow modern jazz: Douglas on trumpet, Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax, Vijay Iyer on piano, Linda Oh on bass, Marcus Gilmore on drums. Looks a lot like Dave Douglas' working quintet, but with completely different personnel, and six new tunes. The record is called Orange Afternoons; check out the track "Solato":
GPS 3, called Bad Mango, pairs Douglas with the innovative quartet So Percussion. Trumpet plus lots of deftly-arranged clatter, synths, mallets and junkyard noise, on new tunes and old. It's probably the least "jazzy"; incidentally, it might be my favorite of the three. Here's the title track:
Now, I have my personal criticisms about each for sure. Brass Ecstasy is so great live that if you're new to the band, you may want to start with their live recordings (there are several sets available from Greenleaf, one of which was recorded by WBGO at the Newport Jazz Festival for a recent release) rather than the studio documents. Orange Afternoons is filled with lots of searching playing and typically intricate-but-never-impenetrable Douglas tunes — but one wonders how it would have sounded if the tunes had been more "lived-in." As for Bad Mango: You can get a surprising amount of harmonic depth out of trumpet plus percussion quartet, but only so much.
Here's the thing: At five bucks a pop, all are worth trying out. Heck, you don't have to pay anything to sample one track from each on YouTube — or crawl around the Greenleaf site and you'll find that same sample track streaming online, or available for download if you give over an e-mail address. It's a digestible amount of music — not too much, not insubstantial — and there's a sense of adventure here, like "hey some great musicians, let's get together and try these things out, and if it works, sweet!" If you've ever liked anything that Dave Douglas put out, there's something you might like here.
There's yet another way to experience this music, called the Greenleaf Cloud Player. Basically, Douglas and company have made the entire Greenleaf catalog (not just Douglas' music) available for on-demand streaming from a computer or mobile device. There are tiered subscriptions, which offer premiums of discounted purchases, extra audio and live concerts. But unlimited access to the full catalog starts at $25/year, and you can listen to some of the free tracks at greenleafmusic.com/cloudplayer.
I accessed all this music via a complimentary press subscription to the Cloud Player. It's simple enough: The interface should be intuitive to anyone who has iTunes, or really any other digital music library. Including Dave Douglas' discography as a leader in the last ten-odd years, Greenleaf has amassed a respectable little catalog (Kneebody, Indigo Trio, two Donny McCaslin recordings and more), and it's quite nice to be able to access all of it whenever you want. And $25 seems like a reasonable fee for that service.
The Cloud Player does have its drawbacks, though. Notably:
The interface has a few kinks to it. There's no progress bar for where you are in the song. There's no on-screen volume control. And when you click on a new artist or album — that is, if you're just browsing, with no real intention of starting a new song — the music stops playing, which is quite annoying. If you're trying to play through an album or even just a song straight through, it's fine. But we of the iTunes generation like to browse, skip around and indulge our musical ADD — and that's who this is marketed to, no?
Tested on an iPod Touch, it was difficult to find a link to the mobile-specific version of the player. In fact, I couldn't, and had to refer to the press e-mail for the specific link. As long as it's charging for the service, Greenleaf ought to develop its own iPhone and Android apps for easy access.
My third comment isn't a criticism as much as it is an open-ended lament. It seems silly that Greenleaf developed its own (imperfect) player when services like Spotify, Rhapsody and Rdio already exist. Why not just license the catalog to those services — why compete with your own proprietary system, which will feel irrelevant to all but the most tech-savvy jazz fans already? That's an easy question to answer, of course: Spotify, etc. represent a great bargain for consumers, but a terrible deal for Douglas and Greenleaf, who would only earn infinitesimal royalties per play. So if Dave Douglas wants to earn something via digital streaming, he's gotta sell his product separately. Compared to a catalog of millions of songs spanning nearly the entire history of recorded music, asking for more money might discourage people to take a chance on Dave Douglas/Greenleaf recordings.
None of these things are deal-breakers for me, personally. There's a lot of good music out on Greenleaf lately, and once you learn the limitations of the Cloud Player, you can adjust your user habits. It's still a good value: You can pay nothing for a taste, as little as $5 for an album and as little as $25 for access to a massive cache of music. There's plenty to be satisfied with.
There's imperfection too, sure. But it comes from a place of wanting to innovate artistically, which often means an innovation in artistic medium. And in the field Dave Douglas works in, you can hear these experiments play out, literally and figuratively.