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The Contender

Meet Dave Douglas, Jazz's Innovative Man of the Moment

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 11/15/2000

When Dave Douglas appeared at the Library of Congress last month, he seemed an unlikely challenger to Wynton Marsalis' status as contemporary jazz's unofficial leader. Unlike Marsalis, who always looks so trim and handsome in his dark, expensive suits, Douglas is balding and slightly pudgy and, on this occasion, wore a bright purple shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He proved himself a good trumpeter, but he didn't have Marsalis' overpowering technique or his encyclopedic command of jazz history.

Instead, Douglas played the music of surprise. In the white alcove of the library's Coolidge Auditorium on Oct. 14, the 37-year-old trumpeter played with two very different groups: the trumpet-accordion-violin-bass quartet Charms of the Night Sky and the trumpet-guitar-drums combo the Tiny Bell Trio. In both settings, Douglas' silver horn always seemed to reach for the unexpected harmony, the unfamiliar phrase. And when he found it, he made it fit the music like an odd-shaped piece in a jigsaw puzzle. If Marsalis seems to preach with his trumpet, Douglas seems to converse with his. At the Library of Congress, Douglas' horn chattered excitedly, murmured intimately, and even broke into peals of laughter. It was not the sound of larger-than-life, heroic proclamations; it was the sound of friends talking over the Formica tabletop of a diner booth.

"I think humor is important," Douglas says. "And a certain down-to-earth quality is necessary. Ideas come from the mind, but I think music should also come from the heart and soul and deal with emotions. I deal with these ideas in the composing room, but I want the music to have the life of the players once it gets on stage. If music takes itself too seriously, it loses that sense of life. So I'm the first one to laugh at myself."

Douglas and Marsalis are both under 40, and both are ambitious composers who want to liberate jazz from its theme-solo-solo-theme straitjacket. Marsalis may be the artistic director of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and have a closet full of Grammies, but it's Douglas who has captured the imagination of jazz critics lately. At the 1999 New York Jazz Awards, he was named Artist of the Year, Composer of the Year, Trumpeter of the Year, and Daring Innovator/Explorer. Jazz Times magazine named him last year's Jazz Artist of the Year in 1999, and he won the same honor in the most recent Down Beat critics poll, along with nods for Trumpet Player of the Year, and Jazz Album of the Year for Soul on Soul, released early in 2000.

After seven years of recording a large catalog for such indie labels as Avant, DIW, hatOLOGY, Knitting Factory Works, New World, Songlines, Soul Note, and Winter & Winter, Douglas finally made his major-label debut with Soul on Soul. His second RCA Victor release, the brand new A Thousand Evenings, is his third album of the year, joining Soul on Soul and Leap of Faith (Arabesque Records).

Douglas showcased material from A Thousand Evenings with Charms of the Night Sky during his first set at the Library of Congress. The instrumental combination of trumpet, accordion ( Guy Klucevsek), violin (Mark Feldman), and bass (Greg Cohen) inevitably triggered associations with Argentine tango, Parisian cabaret music, Mexican mariachi, and Lower East Side klezmer. Douglas uses these echoes not for mimicry but as points of departure. He opened the set with the new album's title track, a dizzying reverie that recalled the rich, ever-shifting harmonies of tango master Astor Piazzolla. "On Our Way Home" took a sprightly mariachi theme and twisted it into improvisatory knots. "The Branches," dedicated to klezmer pioneer Dave Tarras, used its Yiddish motifs as the basis for a raucous conversation of trumpet chuckles, squeezebox boasts, and fiddle jabbering. The four musicians kept glancing from the sheet music on their stands to each other's eyes as they shifted from notation to improvisation and back again. This is Douglas' greatest achievement; he writes music that provides a sense of direction to the solos and he finds musicians who will invent new material in the spirit of the composition.

"I think the era of head-solo-solo-head is coming to an end," Douglas argues. "The meeting of composition and improvisation is one of the biggest challenges in all kinds of music right now, because there are so many different ways to combine them.

"There are an infinite number of ways to relate composition to improvisation, and I'm still discovering them. When I run out, I'll stop. When I create music, I try to question the existing, standard way of doing things. Why should the rhythm section only accompany horn solos? Why shouldn't the horns accompany someone? Why should the tempo be the same the whole way through? John Zorn, Anthony Braxton, and Pauline Oliverios have all come up with fascinating alternatives for giving instructions to improvisers. I'm trying to do the same."

The second Library of Congress set was the world premiere of a Douglas composition for violin and piano; he sat in the front row while Feldman and Sylvie Courvoisier played the commissioned piece. The third set found Douglas back on stage with guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Jim Black as the Tiny Bell Trio. They played without notated music, opening with a fast, rambunctious free improvisation and closing with a bluesy interpretation of classical composer Robert Schumann's Suite for Cello and Piano.

Douglas also has a string quintet (himself, Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Michael Sarin); a jazz quartet (himself, saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist James Genus, and drummer Ben Perowsky); and a jazz septet (himself, Genus, drummer Joey Baron, pianist Uri Caine, trombonist Joshua Roseman, and saxophonists Greg Tardy and Chris Speed).

"I like to play with a lot of different musicians," he says with droll understatement, "and that inspires me as a composer to write very differently. I wouldn't see the point of putting out as many records as I do if they all sounded the same. But the reason I put out this many records is they each have their own point of view."

The jazz quartet recorded Leap of Faith, a collection of 11 Douglas originals. As appealingly melodic as these compositions are, it's when Douglas' trumpet and Potter's tenor sax stretch the harmonies almost to the breaking point that the tunes are most beautiful. The gas-and-brake rhythms often seem on the verge of stumbling, but they never lose their momentum and sustain a delicious taste of tension throughout the disc. Soul on Soul, Douglas' most accessible recording yet, features the septet. As he has with earlier tribute albums devoted to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter, and Joni Mitchell, Douglas salutes the late jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams by revamping her tunes and by creating new compositions in her style.

"I started my career with the idea of wanting to combine everything into one project," Douglas says. "But I soon found out it wasn't possible because there are too many things. Other artists develop what they do very deeply, and it's one thing--and I respect and admire that. But I have a multitasking personality. And I'm easily dissatisfied. If I come up with a solution to one problem, there's always another problem to be solved the next day.

"You put together a band and you try to throw all these things in, and not all of them work. So you start another band to try those things. And then there are still some left over, so you start another band. And so on."

It is possible to admire both Douglas and Marsalis, but if I had to bet on which one represents the future of jazz, I'd have to go with the bald guy.

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