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A Jazz Composer Turns His Grief into Devotional Music

Dave Douglas, the jazz composer and trumpeter, has made quite a bit of adventurous and unusual music over the past two decades, and I’ve written with admiration of it in the pages of TNR. He has made music more original than his new album, Be Still—a collection of Protestant hymns, mainly, performed with Douglas’s new group, augmented by the young Appalachian-style vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, and released last week on Douglas’ label, Greenleaf Music. But he has never done anything braver and, by my measure, more important. What’s extraordinary about Be Still is its beauty, its lack of affect, the stillness at its heart. It’s important not because it sets a new agenda for contemporary music, but because it has no cultural strategy. It’s a personal piece of work that grew from the death of Douglas’ mother, Emily, last year. Before she died, she had given Douglas a list of hymns to be played at her memorial service, and Be Still is made up mostly from that list.

On one level, Be Still connects to the great tradition of secular artists such as Duke Ellington, Elvis Presley, and Bob Dylan taking unexpected turns into sacred territory. (Saved, the second of Dylan’s born-again albums, has some of his most lucid and forceful writing, and, I think, the best singing of his career.) In devotional music, musicians have to devote themselves to something other, something larger than their selves, and the results can seem miraculous.

The new Douglas album relates, too, to one of the oldest themes in song, as well as drama: mother love. (As we know from the lyrics of “That’s Entertainment,” by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, “The plot could be hot, simply teaming with sex/A gay divorcee who is after her ex/It could be Oedipus Rex.”) It was mother love that gave us the big moment in the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer: Al Jolson singing “My Mammy”; it stirred Duke Ellington to compose his first long-form masterpiece, “Reminiscing in Tempo”; it moved Paul McCartney to write “Let It Be,” for his mother, Mary, and, in a more complicated form, led John Lennon to write not only “Julia” for the Beatles’ White Album, but two raw, unsettling songs on the first Plastic Ono Band album: “Mother” and “My Mommy’s Dead.”

It would be disingenuous of me not to mention that I’m moved by Douglas’s album in part because my own mother died a few weeks after Douglas’s, a year ago this week. I’m not going to misuse this forum by indulging the persistent grief familiar to everyone who lives with a loss. I’ll just end with a clip of Aoife O’Donovan in a live performance of a Bob Dylan song my mom always liked.

Correction: The original version of this post contained a misspelling of the name of Aoife O’Donovan, a vocalist appearing on Douglas’s album.