Dave Douglas brought his ensemble Brass Ecstasy to Amherst last night to play a beautifully-programmed benefit concert in memory of his mother, Emily Douglas, who died on August 27 at the age of 78. Emily had made her home in Amherst in recent years and was an active member of the Amherst South Congregational Church, site of the concert. Brass Ecstasy, which Douglas founded a few years ago in tribute to the late trumpeter Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, last night featured Josh Roseman on trombone, Vincent Chancey on French horn, Marcus Rojas on tuba, and Ben Perowsky on drums.
The concert began with “Spirit Moves,” a Douglas original and the title track of Brass Ecstasy’s 2009 debut recording. The tune’s cadence and gospel harmonies evoke both New Orleans parade music and the richly expressive trombone shout band tradition of the African American church. It set the tone for the evening’s soulful reflection on Emily, a lover of the arts whom Dave credited with “encouraging” everything he’s explored in his stylistically daring and wide-ranging career. He estimated that she saw him in concert well over 200 times.
Douglas arranged two of his mother’s favorite hymns for the memorial, “God Be with You Till We Meet Again,” and “This Is My Father’s World.” For the latter, he invited the congregation to sing to the accompaniment of Brass Ecstasy and organist Marilyn Brayne, South Church’s music director. (I must admit to how elevating it felt to sing under Douglas's direction, and to indulge for a minute or two in the fantasy of being a member of his ensemble.)
Douglas, a perennial #1 Trumpeter in the Downbeat Critics Poll, has created an acclaimed body of compositions as well, and last night he presented a work composed during a recent Aaron Copland Residency. He lauded Copland’s inherently American themes like “Appalachian Spring” and “Fanfare for the Common Man” as he introduced his composition “Safeway,” a reflection on the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords at a supermarket near Tucson last January while he was at the Copland Center in the Hudson River Valley.
As on Brass Ecstasy’s two Greenleaf Music releases, Vincent Chancey was the featured soloist on Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” his French horn the ideal voice of the “lonesome whippoorwill” and “robin’s weep.” And Roseman was especially expressive on the rarely-heard John Coltrane blues, “Mr. Syms.” Douglas offered another piece from the Brass Ecstasy repertoire, "Rava," his tribute to the Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava; at last year’s Newport Jazz Festival, Douglas told the audience about a film clip that had recently surfaced of Rava in 1958 describing himself as “the world’s greatest trumpeter.” Douglas has a good-natured brassiness of his own that must surely delight in bold assertions of this kind.
Brass Ecstasy concluded with a celebratory take on “This Little Light of Mine,” the gospel standard that transformed South Congregational into a veritable revival meeting last night.