Not one to shy from politics, Dave Douglas’ Engage tackles a variety of hot button topics ranging from gun control to immigration. To address these issues, the bandleader assembled a collective of those at the forefront of modern avant garde jazz music including guitarist Jeff Parker, cellist Tomeka Reid, saxophonist and flautist Anna Webber, bassist Nick Dunston, and drummer Kate Gentile. Some of the pieces also include trumpeters Dave Adewumi and Riley Mulherkar of The Westerlies. This group’s diversity is commendable, transcending not only race, gender, and age but sound itself. Although all are comfortably within the avant garde, each represents a different facet of the subgenre and each are pushed outside of their usual comfort zones on this particular album. Additionally, Douglas, whose career has covered a wide berth, including electronic and ambient, Balkan folk, string groups, hard bop, spirituals, and a brass band, is an ideal person to present such an eclectic ensemble.
Any politically motivated art is inherently risky as the underlying message, regardless of the perspective espoused, may alienate some listeners who hold an opposing viewpoint. Alternatively, works based on political viewpoints can sometimes rank among an artist’s best as its intrinsic aspiration can bring out facets of their creativity not yet explored.
Engage is unlikely to alienate those with differing opinions on any specific issue. Indeed, other than the liner notes, there is nothing particular about any of the tracks which evoke the subject matterthey are intended to represent. Even their titles, with the exception of “Sanctuary Cities”, are not overtly political.
Instead, the album generally focuses on fostering collectiveness and a common purpose. In our increasingly divisive culture, this emphasis on collaboration is refreshing. The musicians foster this view of unity and harmony in part by writing songs solely based off of major triads. In the bandleader’s own words, the music was intended as a reminder “to stay positive and engaged through music daily.” In the abstract, it is novel to apply such a compositional approach to jazz, a genre heavily reliant on minor and augmented triads.
In practice, however, the concern is that a major triad focus runs the risk of the music seeming devoid of conflict and uninteresting. Each of the twelve pieces in Engage’s “song-cycle” (including two versions of “Showing Up”) attempt to avoid this problem by approaching the triads in a different way. While this mitigates the problem somewhat, the written pieces still often sound too similar to one another and generally listless.
This is not to say Engage is without its high points. As can be expected, the technical prowess of the band members is evident in their performances. The solos throughout are generally inspired. Additionally, incredible synergic energy between the artists is evident throughout. Of particular note is the fascinating interplay between Webber (on bass flute), Reid, Gentile, Dunston, and Parker from the two minute mark onward on the track “In It Together.” These gems are even more apparent upon repeat listening.
Unfortunately, repeat listening does not save the generally tepid compositions which, at times, such overshadow the fantastic parts of the album. While the aim of expressing political frustrations in a manner most likely to bring people together is commendable, using solely harmonious sounding songs as a base for doing so seems to be a mistake. Although Engage is generally enjoyable, each of these instrumentalists have far more engaging recordings in their respective discographies.