Dave Douglas: Jazz Artist of the Year

Critical mass has been gaining on Dave Douglas of late, in the form of awards, laurels, and even his first domestic major label deal, so it’s no surprise that JazzTimes critics have chosen him as the magazine’s “Artist of the Year”. Douglas suits the role, in ways at once unlikely and logical: unlikely, because he has developed largely in the margins, building up a healthy discography on small labels and playing in the nontraditional left end of the jazz scene; and logical, because Douglas is a mature-yet-still-young who appears to be forging—full speed ahead—his own new version of the progressive jazz musician model.

For Douglas, a hell of a trumpeter who happens to also be a hell of an all-around musician, jazz is less a fixed language to be reverently exercised than it is a hunk of rock waiting to be chiseled, redefined. Jazz is the medium, the message. He pushes the music into other areas, building to suit his instincts, into the classical chamber mode, into Eastern European folk idioms, or quirky rock riffage, abutting uncharted improv sections. With John Zorn’s Masada, he is a broad-ranging Don Cherry to Zorn’s cantor-like Ornette. In Douglas’ cerebral daredevil act, Tiny Bell Trio, he is a critical one-third in a bass-less equation that travels the world, known and otherwise, in its music.

There is much more to the elements making up Douglas’ musical world, which has quietly cohered into one of the most important jazz sensations of the ’90s. He has been assiduous about pursuing creative musical solutions to pressing questions, including a basic one: Is jazz a progressive music, or a retrogressive one beholden to older paradigms? The answer is obvious, and persuasive, in Douglas’ work, which can be serious and gutsy, by turns, just as it can be earthy and heady simultaneously. The music works, in other words, on multiple levels, as with all great art. Also like great art, he’s a work-in-progress, resistant to smug, inflexible conclusions.

On the brink of Douglas’ major American label debut, having just been signed to RCA Victor, the best scenario will be that his ideas reach a wider audience, who will then have their curiosity piqued. What they’ll find is a rich discography already extant, built up over the past several years. Douglas has been recording feverishly, and well, for such small and passionate labels as the Canadian Songlines (which “broke” the fabulous Tiny Bell Trio), Soul Note, Arabesque, and Winter & Winter.

That fine new German label’s loving care and elegant packaging nicely complements Douglas’ aesthetic, as with the new Tiny Bell Trio project, Songs for Wandering Souls (an apt description of Douglas’ music). The trio, with guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Jim Black, scampers along an idiomatic axis that seems to extend from Seattle to Budapest, with a long stopover in Manhattan. Douglas’ own compositions are poetically interrupted by strange bedfellows: Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “Breath-a-Thon” and Robert Schumann’s “Nicht so schnell, mit viel,” reborn as a loose and languid jazz etude. And why not?

The essence of the Douglas touch—or, more like it, reach—may also be alluded to in the title of one of his best releases to date, the 1993 quintet project Parallel Worlds (Soul Note). The worlds in question could be the familiar dualities in jazz—structure and freedom, fixity and abstraction—or it could be a style matter, on a set of music framed by the music of Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky, and including bits of Ellington and Weill amidst his own writing.

As strong as Douglas’ growth as a composer has been, he has paid heartfelt tribute to his own heroes in the jazz pantheon, including Booker Little, whose depth of expression, burnished (rather than brash) tone, and poetic restraint Douglas lays claim to in his own way. He also nods humbly to Wayne Shorter with the tribute Stargazer (Arabesque). Recorded late in 1996, it features Douglas-penned tunes inspired by Shorter’s quixoticism, as well as a few Shorter originals, including “On the Milky Way Express.” This piece, taken from Shorter’s underrated ’90s masterpiece, High Life, is beautifully re-scaled from the suitably more-is-more density of the original version to a tightly-voiced, chamber-like sextet arrangement of Douglas’ devising. It sounds like Blakey-meets-Hindemith. Next up, he plays the spry yet sad tune “Pug Nose,” from the 1959 Introducing Wayne Shorter, on the Veejay label.

History is well accounted for in Douglas’ musical worldview. His own history, in a thumbnail form: born in New Jersey in 1963, he took a degree in music from NYU and stayed put in New York, tapping into the new music ferment based around the Knitting Factory and the “downtown” scene. In straightahead jazz mode, he worked with Vincent Herring and Horace Silver, but settled naturally into more venturesome circles. He found an empath in John Zorn, who logically hired Douglas for Masada, modeled after the early Ornette Coleman Quartet, combined with “radical Jewish” sensibilities.

To satisfy Douglas’ range of interests, in jazz and classical, but also including circus sonorities, cabaret, Euro-phonics, and on and on, he works with multiple groups, including a string group, a sextet, the trio, and...we’ll see what else coalesces. Douglas is in a right time/right place situation,
a talent deserving wider recognition, but one who has already built up a solid musical foundation.

The cement has almost dried, and yet it may never dry, always subject to change and reshaping. That’s a fine condition for an artist perched between millennia to be in.

Originally published in January/February 2000

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