Douglas and Keystone pay intriguing tribute to fallen legend

by Chip Shaffer | 10/17/05 5:00am

Dave Douglas and Keystone -- not to be confused with the beer -- is a cool group centered on a cool idea: jazz pieces accompanying a selection of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle's silent films. For those who don't know, Fatty Arbuckle was one of the first comedians of the silent-film era and even served as a mentor to the much more famous Charlie Chaplin.

Sadly, Arbuckle's career was permanently damaged by a 1921 scandal in which he was falsely accused of murdering actress Virginia Rappe. Though Arbuckle was eventually acquitted and even given an official apology by the jury after his third trial, neither he nor his career ever recovered from the infamy that the scandal brought him.

Unfortunately, judging by the vast number of empty seats at the Hop Saturday night, not many people seemed to care about Fatty Arbuckle or Dave Douglas and Keystone's musical accompaniments. Or perhaps Dave Douglas and Keystone is just a little too cool and a little too trendy for "North Face" Hanover, New Hampshire.

But for those of us who took the time to bring our designer-label shirts and jeans out of hiding, Saturday night was an eccentric -- if not entirely superb -- look inside Dave Douglas' musical interpretation of Fatty Arbuckle and his films.

I say eccentric because Keystone is not your usual jazz ensemble. Along with the more traditional trumpet (Dave Douglas), tenor saxophone (Marcus Strickland), Fender Rhodes (Adam Benjamin), bass (Brad Jones) and drums (Gene Lake), the ensemble also featured DJ Olive on turntables and various other electronics.

The resulting sound was a somewhat jumbled combination of riffs provided by trumpet and sax juxtaposed with warped outer-space soundscapes from DJ Olive, linked together somewhat by Lake's heavy, alternately hip-hoppish and alternately jazzy drum playing, Jones' deep bass and Benjamin's effects-laden piano. To provide a means of comparison, Keystone would not sound entirely out of place on a DJ Shadow album.

Perhaps the disjointed nature of Keystone's music is a reflection of Roscoe's own films. Mostly lacking in plot, they are full of physical comedy, vigor and exaggerated facial expressions. (Arbuckle's smile strangely, even freakishly, resembles Malcolm McDowell's grimace in "A Clockwork Orange.") Even if his films may not draw many laughs from modern audiences, they are entertaining nonetheless for their sight gags and lighthearted playfulness; Arbuckle often took credit for being the first film comedian to be hit in the face with a pie.

Though Douglas' compositions were ostensibly meant to follow the events of the three short films shown -- "Fatty and Mabel Adrift," "Fatty's Tintype Tangle" and "Fatty's Plucky Pup" -- the tone of the music did not always seem to correspond to the actions onscreen. Douglas' creations were instead more of a brooding on Arbuckle's life. Even when the action was at its most fast-paced and jovial, there was always a mysterious undertone, usually provided by DJ Olive's funky noises, which hinted at the impending and unjust collapse of Arbuckle's career.

In between the third and fourth films, Keystone played a piece that was inspired by Fatty Arbuckle, though not accompanied by any video. To be blunt, this piece was my favorite; all the members looked more relaxed than usual and really seemed to be enjoying themselves while performing.

Like Arbuckle, who was constantly delving into new cinematic areas in those early days of film, Keystone combines jazz with electronica to challenge our own musical aesthetic. Moreover, Dave Douglas also came to challenge Dartmouth's personal aesthetic in particular. Wearing a dark, metropolitan outfit and black-rimmed glasses that immediately drew attention to his face, Douglas may have been more at home in a hip bar in New York than in Hanover, New Hampshire.

However, even if this were the case, he didn't care; Dave Douglas and his ensemble were here to play. At times, the music was fun and rambling, and at other times, the show turned weird and bizarre. But throughout the performance, Dave Douglas and Keystone was, if nothing else, always intriguing.

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