Album of the Week: Dezron Douglas, 'ATALAYA'
Dezron Douglas’ new album, ATALAYA, begins with each member of his band individually reciting the word “forward” as a mantra, between a percussive clack of wooden claves. This is the opening ceremony, calling each musician, and each listener, into the same space to prepare for launch.
“Atalaya” was named after an elementary school in Santa Fe, N.M., where the composition was made. (The word itself means “watchtower,” or a place or position affording a good view.) Douglas and his fearless crew — saxophonist Emilio Modeste, pianist George Burton and drummer Joe Dyson, Jr. — start with a well-balanced groove and abruptly catapult into a frenetic free-jazz escapade before finding stability again.
Douglas came up under the tutelage of legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean, and has since become a major force in jazz, contributing to at least 100 albums. A longstanding member of the Ravi Coltrane Quartet, he served as both bassist and producer on recent albums by Louis Hayes and Brandee Younger, his partner and frequent collaborator. In 2021, Douglas also became a full-time member of the Trey Anastasio Band, which concluded its fall arena tour last Saturday, one day after ATALAYA was released.
The album — his seventh as a leader, on the International Anthem label — covers a lot of ground, both musically and literally. Many of Douglas’ songs are named after specific places, stretched across the continents. A powerfully animated tune titled “Coyoacán,” for instance, refers to a borough in Mexico City; the word means “place of the coyotes,” logging the first of several animal references throughout the album.
The paw print boldly stamped on the album cover is a likely allusion to the Black Lion, which has become a part of Douglas’ brand, if not an alter ego. It’s a phrase he commonly uses with regard to his music community, and it provided the title for an album he released in 2018.
“Welcome to the Black Lion rocket ship,” he writes in these new liner notes. “Join Emilio, George, Joe and me as we lift off and open our hearts and minds in hopes of finding what’s hiding in the ethereal universe and exalting upon its beauty. Yes, a pride of lions hunting for beauty in a world filled with chaos can be odd, but we hope to make this commonplace.”
That search for beauty manifests in a few different ways. “Rosé” is a perfect acoustic embodiment of the pink wine itself; the tune sounds like a night out with your best friends. A lilting waltz embellished with the sweet sparkling notes of Burton’s piano dazzling over the background chatter. There’s conversation, laughter, even a little cackling. Altogether, a good time.
“Luna Moth” gives us extended bass solos from Douglas. Like the moon moth, we should consider ourselves lucky to have witnessed its glory. (Douglas dedicates the tune to Mario Pavone, a fellow bassist and composer who died last year.) “J Bird” is a showcase for Dyson, an absolute powerhouse drummer; it’s followed by a squiggly bass solo interlude called “Octopus.”
The album’s midpoint contains two pivotal destination tracks, back to back. “Wheeping Birch” is the lone vocal selection on the outing, featuring Melvis Santa, who co-wrote the song with Douglas. The tune sways gracefully but with a weighted gravity, reminiscent of the drooping, sweeping pendulous tree itself.
The other selection at this midway point is a gorgeous, languid, moving song called “Jones Beach.” It fluctuates between crescendo and diminuendo, like undulating ocean waves crashing upon the shore and receding again. Dyson’s cymbal work expertly evokes ocean spray as the sun rises on the beach and we prepare for the remainder of the album’s journey.
What arrives at this point is “More Coffee Please,” a pick-me-up that Douglas has been playing for a while – notably with this same quartet in West Philadelphia last year, yielding a video produced by WRTI for NPR Music Live Sessions. For Douglas (as for many a jazz musician), coffee is an ethos unto itself. So much so that he partnered with Chicago roaster Four Letter Word to release a special blend called Atalaya in coordination with the album’s release.
The last stop and closing tune on ATALAYA is “Foligno,” so named for an ancient Italian town. Burton shines again with a sweeping solo on this composition, which bears a dedication to Italian producer and impresario Mario Guidi.
The album's geographical footprint mimics that of the composer's real life. Douglas has traveled all over the world, to many different places and with many different creatures. Yet, for a brief 46 minutes and 14 seconds, he creates a common ground where we can congregate, resonate and vibrate together.
ATALAYA is out now on International Anthem. The Dezron Douglas Quartet performs this Friday and Saturday at Smalls Jazz Club.