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Who Cares What Purists Think?

Free jazz? Balkan? Trumpeter Dave Douglas stays true to his eclectic vision--and his homage to the past was no exception

September 03, 2000|JOSEPH HOOPER | Joseph Hooper writes about jazz from New York

NEW YORK — One evening last month, trumpeter Dave Douglas and his sextet were blowing into the twilight at Lincoln Center's North Plaza in Manhattan, a stone's throw from the famous Jazz at Lincoln Center program that trumpeter Wynton Marsalis built. As even non-jazz fans know, Marsalis is the long-standing personification of a musical back-to-basics movement emphasizing fealty to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and the near-metaphysical imperative of "swinging."

Douglas, at 37 two years Marsalis' junior, has become, if not a household name, a standard-bearer for a looser opposing set of "downtown" values. At Manhattan clubs such as the Knitting Factory, in the TriBeCa neighborhood, and Tonic, on the Lower East Side, "postmodern" improvisers have mixed and matched jazz with classical, world music and rock elements, to the displeasure of some. Two years ago at an awards ceremony, Jazz at Lincoln Center consultant and writer Stanley Crouch threw a punch at a jazz critic during an argument about Douglas' merits. Today, a more "live and let live" attitude seems to reign.

"The jazz wars have ended for the moment," says Douglas triumphantly a few days after the Lincoln Center gig, "and we won, meaning we're allowed to do whatever we want to do."

As Douglas prepares himself for a visit to the new Knitting Factory Hollywood on Sept. 15 and the Monterey Jazz Festival the next day, this would be a good moment to ask just what that would be and why do so many non-downtowners seem to like it.

The fact is, for a card-carrying member of the downtown jazz scene, the trumpeter has been making some impressively mainstream friends. Earlier this year he marked the release of his major-label debut, "Soul on Soul" (RCA Victor), with a sold-out weeklong gig at Manhattan's Village Vanguard, that citadel of swinging respectability. Just last month, Downbeat magazine, a reliable arbiter of middle-of-the-road jazz taste, awarded Douglas a rare triple crown in its annual critics' poll--jazz artist, trumpeter and, for "Soul on Soul," album of the year.

That Dave Douglas, a shortish, balding and uncharismatic guy, should become downtown jazz's ambassador to the rest of the world might not have been predicted. There are, however, reasons: a blazing musical intelligence, the work habits of a Puritan and, not to be underestimated, a diversified portfolio. His first album, "Parallel Worlds" in 1993, was a heady, high-culture brew of works by Webern, Weill, Stravinsky, Ellington and Douglas himself. It made a fine showcase for his intellectual fearlessness and a melancholy trumpet sound well-rooted in Miles Davis. As he says now, "I tried to include everything I knew."

Later in the decade, Douglas hit on a different approach, spinning off separate groups that reflected the breadth of his musical interests. His string group with violinist Mark Feldman and cellist Erik Friedlander highlights the classical chops that abound on the downtown scene. His Tiny Bell Trio with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Brad Shepik is a Manhattan portal for the keening melodies and tricky meters of the music of the Balkans. (Balkan music, especially from the Gypsy or Romani culture of Romania and Bulgaria, is now in heavy downtown circulation.)

His newest group, Charms of the Night Sky, posed the question: What would a chamber group built around the virtuosity of New York accordionist Guy Klucevsek sound like? The answer is the most lyrical and unabashedly beautiful writing and playing of the trumpeter's career. The group's second album, "A Thousand Evenings," comes out on RCA Oct. 10.

Then there is the Douglas Sextet, formed to record a series of homage albums to underappreciated jazz composers such as trumpeter Booker Little, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and, on the latest album, "Soul on Soul," swing-era piano titan Mary Lou Williams.

In the hands of a curatorial genius such as Douglas, the jazz past is a different country, as ripe for exploration as the Balkans but, from the point of view of the general audience, much more accessible. Whether by design or not, it's this group that has been his ticket to the jazz mainstream.

At the Lincoln Center plaza, an audience out to enjoy an unseasonably cool summer evening and whatever was on the musical menu that night was thoroughly charmed and moved by the sextet, a kind of downtown all-stars band. The leader's trumpet work is striking in its dour tone and wide palette of timbral effects, but with pianist Uri Caine and tenor saxophonist Greg Tardy in the group, he's often not the center of attention.

"I try to get people who are better than me," he says. No matter. It is an arranger's band passionately devoted to structure, his chance to deploy the troops in unexpected, sometimes jostling, combinations that defy the post-bop convention of endless rounds of solos.

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