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Dave Douglas: Leap of Faith

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Very few jazz musicians get to be media darlings-I use the term loosely-but trumpeter Dave Douglas has certainly achieved such status in the last couple of years; just a few months back he even graced the cover of this very magazine as “Artist of the Year.” It’s particularly noteworthy because he doesn’t post the kind of sales figures a star like Wynton Marsalis or Cassandra Wilson does. Furthermore, while past and present bandmates of Douglas like clarinetist Don Byron and John Zorn have enjoyed their share of the rare limelight in recent years, they both fall into a category you might call hip, controversial dilettantes; both their vivid stylistic eclecticism and outspokenness make them press naturals. Douglas doesn’t really fit this description either. There’s no question that he’s also absorbed a plethora of disparate styles and approaches over the years-including such non-jazz-related things as Hungarian folk melodies and the music of Robert Schumann-but they always appear in thoroughly assimilated, transmogrified ways. While there may be a certain freak appeal to the fact that Douglas leads about seven distinct working bands in addition to playing regularly in Zorn’s Masada and pianist Myra Melford’s The Same River, Twice, he seems to have earned his current acclaim on the actual basis of his music. His staggering ability is beyond compare; his sound is full-bodied and perfect, his extended technique remarkable.

This new recording represents some of his most straightahead projects, but it’s not difficult to quickly draw distinctions between them. The varied line-ups of each and every one of his groups would alone guarantee dynamically varied results, but Douglas has particular artistic aims for each outfit. The quartet plays a meticulously interactive strain of hard bop while he uses his sextet to pay homage to a particular musician/composer-this time out it’s pianist Mary Lou Williams-but only as a jumping off point; they’re never literal tributes. Just the same, however, the trumpeter’s diverse interests bleed over from one band to the next, resulting in an undeniably unified, if powerfully flexible, aesthetic. His piano-less quartet on Leap of Faith-tenorist Chris Potter, bassist James Genus, and drummer Ben Perowsky-superficially recalls the telepathic unison playing of the classic Davis quintet with Wayne Shorter, but Douglas’ complex, serpentine compositions and the way his rhythm section triggers and prods the front-line into action is worlds apart from that group. The brief, herky-jerk “Emmenthaler” features the relentless shifts found in the music played by the trumpeter’s Tiny Bell Trio, but they’re rendered much differently by this group. Douglas and Potter form a stunning sonic blend, cajoling and shadowing one another, and intertwining lines with sublime intuition and empathy; their tender navigation of the pretty “Another Country” stands as a fine piece of teamwork. The rhythm section energizes the proceedings without cluttering them, although it’s not averse to tossing in some knotty eruptions or chipping in some nicely contrasting freneticism, such as the quasi-jungle beat Perowsky lays down on the opening of “Millennium Bug.”