High Risk

Featuring Jonathan Maron, Mark Guiliana and Shigeto.
“The biggest element is this meeting of the worlds; an openness and willingness to put everything at risk. I wanted to create a situation where we really were at risk, we were on a high wire, where the exigencies of being in the moment and creating with your wits from one second to the next was what it was about.” – Dave Douglas

The thing we call jazz and the thing we call electronic music are both fundamentally concerned with newness. Each follows its own particular, seemingly mutually exclusive path of discovery and creation, its own process toward realizing something where before there was nothing: on one hand, through the dynamic, unpredictable, in-the-moment spiritual alchemy of improvisation; on the other hand, through a meticulous, creatively probing exploration and inventive interrogation of technology’s constantly evolving potential.

HIGH RISK is all at once a new musical ensemble – a highly collaborative quartet convened by veteran trumpeter, composer and bandleader Dave Douglas; a new record on Douglas’ own Greenleaf Music imprint – a richly evocative opus, rife with intersecting currents of sound and emotion; and a new conceptual endeavor, grappling with the tricky, even treacherous, but fertile intersection of these two similarly motivated but inherently disparate streams.

While it might be tempting to superficially slot the four musicians who comprise High Risk into one or the other side of the jazz/electronic divide, none is exactly a neophyte to this sort of cross-
pollination. Bassist Jonathan Maron, who contributes both electric bass guitar and synth (keyboard) bass to this recording, was, as a founding member of Groove Collective, a prominent figure in the fusion-oriented acid jazz movement of the 1990s, when he and Douglas first crossed paths. Mark Guiliana (with whom Douglas first collaborated on a jointly-led project with saxophonist Donny McCaslin) may be one of the hottest, most in-demand young drummers in the jazz scene. His firepower behind the kit is on full, explosive display here – but he’s also an inveterate experimentalist who regularly incorporates electronic elements into his work with his bands Beat Music, Heernt and, perhaps most notably, Mehliana, his genre-defying duo project with Brad Mehldau.

And though Michigan-based Zachary Saginaw, who records under his middle name, Shigeto, is a producer and beatmaker who has released three full-lengths for noted American electronica hub Ghostly International (home to Matthew Dear, Gold Panda, Tycho, HTRK, etc.), and contributes here in the amorphous, hard-to-define role of “electronics,” he’s also a lifelong lover and student of jazz, which undeniably informs the nuance, fluidity and melodicism of his productions. As Shigeto explains it: Jazz has always had a place in my life, whether it was my father playing his records for me or just playing tunes with friends. Before I got into production, all I wanted was to be a jazz drummer. ”

As for Douglas – whose recorded resumé stretches back to the late 1980s, including more than forty records as a leader of all manner of ensembles, and whose music has frequently reached beyond jazz to draw on classical, folk, Balkan music, Klezmer, avant grade jazz (not least as a member of John Zorn’s influential Masada quartet) and, on numerous occasions, electronic influences – he has a tendency to describe this new project in paradoxical terms. “It’s all composed, and it’s all improvised,” he says. “This is completely different from the processes that go on in my other bands, and at the same time it’s totally the same: a bunch of highly skilled individuals who bring themselves and their personality and their skills to the table, to attack these ideas and materials that I bring into the session.” And, similarly: “I try to surround myself with people who know very well what they’re doing, but at the same time have no idea what they’re doing – and then we try to dig ourselves out of the hole together. Because of the new sonic things going on with High Risk, it was especially thrilling to see everyone’s voice getting integrated into the music moment by moment. Jon, Mark and Zach really went a long way towards creating what is on this record.”

The initial seed for the project was planted last May at a Red Bull Music Academy event at Manhattan’s Town Hall; a live “Round Robin” of overlapping solo and duo improvisations from a wide, interdisciplinary array of musicians including, in this case, Nels Cline, Daedelus, Petra Haden, Allen Toussaint, and Wadada Leo Smith. Douglas was slotted to perform alongside Shigeto, who on this occasion opted to upset expectations and flaunt his jazz roots with a live drum set performance. Backstage, the two struck up a conversation. Shigeto surprised Douglas by telling him he was a fan of his work; the next night, Douglas went to check out a Shigeto gig. And from these initial sparks, the idea of High Risk was born.

Ultimately the balance between the contradictory working methods of jazz and electronic music – the instantaneous, collaborative creativity of improvisation and the lengthy, time-consuming and usually solitary process of production – came with an approach that utilized aspects of each; one that, Douglas says, “respected the process of both sides.” The recordings for the album were made on one single, highly-charged, improvisation-filled day in the studio, but that day was preceded by four careful months of preparatory work – with Douglas writing tunes, sending tracks and samples back and forth, talking to engineers, and deciding how it would all work – and followed by another four months of post- production.

Douglas credits recording engineer Geoff Countryman – a longtime collaborator – and mixing engineer Steve Wall as being pivotal and integral to the ultimate realization of the record, highlighting Wall’s post-production work in particular: “I almost wanted to credit him as a musician… in fact, he is a musician, and what he did was incredibly musical. He brought in a lot of tricky stuff, with samples, keyboards, effects, and even moving sounds around. A lot of it is obvious when you listen to the record, but a lot of it is very subtle. I am very grateful for Steve’s contribution, and that of Geoff in capturing the spontaneous live session. The technology was an important part in bringing all these sounds together.”

The finished product is indeed a highly musical, and highly mutable work – one that defies easy categorization but strikes an immediate and compelling emotional connection. The record traces a loose arc from the calm, meandering, slightly surreal “Molten Sunset” through increasingly dramatic and disjointed sci-fi-delic funk grooves, reaching an apex of sorts with the majestically moody title tune before touching back down on elegantly lush and contemplative album closer “Cardinals,” a fine feature for Maron’s musing bass work. Despite the volatility of this potent confluence of players, and the considerable dynamism each of them brings to the session, there’s a sense of focus and coherence here that sets High Risk apart from the more chaotic, open-ended energy of Douglas’ earlier forays into electronically-enriched jazz, notably 2003’s Freak In and his records with ensemble Keystone, including 2007’s Moonshine and 2010’s Spark of Being.

Comparing it to the other electronic records he’s made over the years, Douglas notes: “I find that every time I dig into a new electronic music project, the technology has changed so much that I almost have to reinvent the process of doing it. That ends up becoming part of the composition process for me.” Similarly, Shigeto describes the innovation that arose from taking an unaccustomed – you might say, risky – approach: “I was afraid I wasn’t going to add anything worthwhile playing with these badass cats! In the end it was great and forced me to work in new ways.”

As Douglas sums up the project: “The biggest element is this meeting of the worlds; an openness and willingness to put everything at risk. I wanted to create a situation where we really were at risk, we were on a high wire, where the exigencies of being in the moment and creating with your wits from one second to the next was what it was about.” High stakes, high reward. High Risk.

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