When Dave Douglas unveiled his new acoustic quintet last year, it was with an atypical project: Be Still, a pastoral collection of folk songs and hymns that his mother had requested for her funeral, and the first-ever Douglas album to feature a vocalist (Aoife O’Donovan). It was a moving, gorgeous recording, but its unusual nature didn’t answer the question of how this new lineup might function in Douglas’ more typical outings.
That answer now arrives in the form of Time Travel, an all-instrumental session that may well be the most mainstream jazz album Douglas has ever released. The first thing you hear on the album is the finger-snapping hard-bop riff that introduces “Bridge to Nowhere.” Like all seven of these lengthy tracks, this one is the leader’s composition, but the head sounds as if it was recorded by Horace Silver or Art Blakey before Douglas was born.
Soon enough, however, the trumpeter and tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon unspool that tightly wound theme into counterpointed melodic lines that wriggle out on tangents resembling Douglas’ 21st-century work more than anything on Blue Note in the ’50s. But then, surprisingly, the two horns fall back into a tight unison passage as if they were Jazz Messengers. The rhythm section likewise tightens and loosens the hard-bop framework, resurrecting it one moment and deconstructing it the next. This is neither retro revivalism nor ahistorical modernism. This is musical time travel.
Douglas has been portrayed so often in the press as the anti-Wynton that it’s easy to forget he played in Silver’s band for three months in 1987. “Growing up I listened to straight-ahead jazz,” he told an Elmhurst College audience in 2010. “I wanted to be a Jazz Messenger.” On Time Travel, he journeys back to those early days of fresh enthusiasm, but he brings with him everything he’s learned in the intervening years. The harmonies on “Bridge to Nowhere,” for example, begin with the blues changes of hard bop, but they don’t stay there; they venture outward into clashing keys, even hints of dissonance, before coming back home.
“Beware of Doug,” with its circuslike exuberance, and “Garden State,” with its fast, punchy riff, also bear obvious echoes of the hard-bop era, but those echoes are treated not as statues to be knelt before but as keys to open new doors. The album’s title track reflects Douglas’ long-acknowledged fascination with Wayne Shorter; the new tune’s short, punctuated melody fragments gradually cohere into long, sustained solos by Douglas, Irabagon and pianist Matt Mitchell before disaggregating into separate building blocks again for reassembly.
Douglas opens the 10-minute, album-ending ballad “The Pigeon and the Pie” with an abstracted, two-minute trumpet solo that barely hints at a theme before going off to the squealing margins. Only after that solo does the band play the head, a lovely, romantic theme that would have sounded right at home on a ’50s Blue Note disc—if it had been stated at the beginning of the piece. By reversing the order, Douglas forces us out of comfortable listening habits but still gives us the pleasure of a swooning melody. The pastoral feel of Be Still is revived on one song, the nine-minute “Little Feet,” a series of variations on the traditional folk lullaby “The Mockingbird Song (Hush, Little Baby).”
All the musicians, including bassist Linda Oh, play tastefully and inventively, but special mention must be made of Rudy Royston, one of the most underrated drummers in jazz today. By relying on the snare and cymbals less than other drummers, he de-clutters the midrange frequencies so the piano and tenor can better be heard. By digging more into the tom-toms, he not only carves out his own sonic space within the arrangements but also creates a sub-melody that gives the songs a rumbling, tumbling momentum.