By the time the first fully articulated tone sprang from his trumpet, Dave Douglas had already played something unspeakably sublime.
As the band began “Charms of the Night Sky,” the title track from its first album, the audience was already anticipating the sweeping trumpet and violin melody that would follow Greg Cohen and Guy Klucevsek”s twelve-bar bass and accordion preface. Cohen”s bass played a simple half-syncopated rhythm in medium tempo that Klucevsek embellished with pairs of long, apprehensive tones and Douglas hovered around his music stand, pacing in small anxious steps. A measure before the melody, he pursed his lips and blew. Two sounds emerged simultaneously: Warm air moving through his horn and a soft, quivering whistle. At such a bodeful moment in the music, this ethereal inflection was ghostly enough to be called unearthly. Yet it was the sound of leaves rustling and breeze passing through a chance hole in a tilted acorn cap: The most profoundly earthly thing one could imagine.
Before I get any more caught up in my own idolatry, I should say that Douglas himself would likely frown upon such a sentiment. Before his second performance on Friday night at Kerrytown Concert House, Douglas shrugged off the boisterous crowd”s salute with, “I”m just a guy trying to play some music.” He jest-fully strutted back on stage for his encore, striking muscle-flexing Superman poses and exaggerated an enthusiastic thank you to his record company for making the performance possible.
Douglas” four-record deal with RCA/Victor is one of the most hopeful recent signs to suggest that other trends in experimental improvised music could find a broader audience. The contract”s first product, last year”s Soul on Soul, was an award-winner. But the album”s fairly traditional-sounding sextet tribute to the legendary pianist Mary Lou Williams was doubtlessly less shocking to mainstream jazz audiences than the quirky trumpet, violin, accordion and bass instrumentation on A Thousand Evenings and the quartet”s tendency to delve into tango, klezmer, Balkan folk and classical music.
Douglas agrees that “some people come into it thinking “oh, this is going to be some kind of avant-garde project,”” but doesn”t feel that his music is inaccessible.
“I don”t think the music itself is extremely far out. I”m just interested in having it sound fresh and new.”
Listeners who pay attention to the music of the quartet will find that, while drawing on the phrasings, harmonies, inflections and forms of a multitude of musical forms, the band often functions in precisely the same manner as any jazz combo. On A Thousand Evenings, the Nat Adderly tune “The Little Boy with the Sad Eyes” swings, from the three-hit call and response of melody and accompaniment to Mark Feldman”s motively-structured, Newk-like violin solo.
“I try to make everything I do not fit into any smooth category. As a matter of fact, that”s what I”m fighting against.”
Purists often consider such genre bending within the jazz idiom as blasphemous and, though all of Douglas” solos are laden with variations, distortions and clever juxtapositions of bebop phrases, some may have trouble seeing past the band”s seemingly unorthodox instrumental composition. Which is silly, since the trumpet, violin and bass have all been a part of jazz for the better part of its history and Klucevsek frequently makes his accordion sound just like an organ (an instrument that is anything but foreign to jazz).
Moreover, this quartet is a band, a well-rehearsed group of musicians who are extremely experienced and comfortable performing together. And that”s a quality that has been lacking in mainstream jazz for a number of years.
It”s hardly even appropriate to call Guy Klucevsek, Mark Feldman and Greg Cohen sidemen since each is such a fresh and resourceful master of his own instrument. In fact, the individual presence of each quartet member is so strong that the band often only employs the playing of all four musicians at the same time for instances of extreme climax.
On Friday, the players rotated roles, Cohen walking under a Douglas solo, Douglas egging on the dueling of Feldman and Klucevsek, constantly altering the texture of both the music”s improvised and composed passages so as to make each piece a kaleidoscopic portrait of itself. Suddenly, as on Charms of the Night Sky”s “Dance in Thy Soul,” everyone was playing and the music became so strikingly large that it seemed the quartet might crowd itself off the stage by means of its own webbing emotional intensity.
Still, this is Dave Douglas” band. Although ample space is given to feature every member of the ensemble, the quartet”s construction of melody and improvisation generally hinges upon Douglas” trumpet.
The whimsical waltz “Bal Masque” unravelled around lengthy improvised trumpet passages. Opening the piece with an extended unaccompanied solo, Douglas worked into the melody, bending it into almost a blues. He later sailed back into a solo with a fluttering series of soaring upper register tones as rhythmically sure as the bravado of Louis Armstrong. Mugging Satchmo while tossing out New Orleans blues-based smears and hints of “Down By the Riverside” like beads at a Big Easy street parade, Douglas ironically transformed a song that, on record, sounds like the European-derrived soundtrack to a Scicilian mafia wedding.
Such humor was prevalent throughout the quartet”s performance. In the middle of one solo, the husky, silverhaired and balding Klucevsek gave out a “hmhm” groan like Peter Boyle”s Frankenstein. “Born to be wild,” he said gruffly.
Douglas himself draws on so many different squeals, smears, sputters, whines and whinnies that it seems he and his trumpet are joking with each other in half a dozen different, interchangable voices. And it”s funny. It”s funny that Douglas has created a trumpet style that can encompass Armstrong, Lester Bowie, Clifford Brown, Don Cherry, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard and Gustav Mahler without sounding like anyone other than Dave Douglas.
My favorite Douglas technique is his tendency to smudge the most climactic note in a phrase. Building his way into the upper register, he”ll botch the key note or hit it head on and fall off messily. Of course he could play the note perfectly, but flubbing the note imparts the idea that Douglas is really struggling to express himself. That his solo comes from somewhere deep in his soul and is unearthed in a painfully stirring manner. Furthermore, it”s a gesture of fallibility, something that is refreshingly human to hear from the modern trumpet hero.