The restless trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Dave Douglas does not make music for lazy listeners. Since 1993, Douglas has released around three dozen recordings under his own name, and has appeared on many more than that as a sideman. About the only thing all of that music has in common is Douglas’ apparent determination to never play the same thing twice.
It’s habit—and sometimes a comfort—to associate favorite players with a recognizable pattern of phrasing or a reliance on effective motifs. The characteristics that identify Douglas are his obvious delight in making sounds he has not made before, and a sublimation of the self—many minutes pass during his finest compositions without the sound of a trumpet. In place of ego there seem to be generosity and modesty and a genuine desire to hear what his always well-chosen colleagues will do with his ideas.
Douglas has made a dozen or so recordings with the John Zorn-led ensemble Masada, mashing up klezmer with Ornette Coleman-esque improvisation. All of them are worth hearing. Certain of them are worth owning. Douglas’ bright, radiant horn proves to be the perfect foil for Zorn’s dour and digging alto sax. That Douglas-Zorn combination, it could be argued, is about as close as the current generation of players has come to fixing a distinctive, personalized sound in time, the way Miles Davis and John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk and Charlie Rouse or Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro did before them in the early 1960s. The Douglas albums In Our Lifetime (1995), A Thousand Evenings, (2000) and Soul on Soul (also 2000) are perfect packages of original music. The music is truly original, even though Lifetime contains several Booker Little compositions, and Soul on Soul is a tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams. On A Thousand Evenings, the Douglas quartet covers the theme from Goldfinger. It is both sexier and more suspenseful than the film. Soul on Soul closes with Williams’ jubilant “Play It Momma,” sans piano. It’s the best example of barrelhouse trumpet you’re apt to find.
For all of its celebration as a borderless, freely expressive, and spontaneous form, jazz enters the 21st century as a fairly rigid way of thinking, defined primarily by bright spots of innovation along the 20th-century timeline. Too often it is an exercise in recycling. The status quo expects players entering the field to align themselves with the sound of a predecessor or two and subscribe to a particular style for the length of a career, more or less. For people like Douglas and a small group of others, being narrowly categorized as a jazz player seems a discourtesy to the musicians. Douglas’ music has more in common with composers like Morton Feldman, late-in-career Elliott Carter, or Osvaldo Golijov than it does with the work of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis. The Dave Douglas Quintet featured on the 2005 Keystone includes DJ Olive working turntables. The so-called jazz quartet one hears on A Thousand Evenings consists of a trumpet, bass, accordion, and violin. The music on both records is the stuff of dreams and nonviolent nightmares. There is never one set of sounds to help you predict what the next sounds will be. And if you are inclined to seek and listen to music as a way to add to what you know rather than confirm what you know, it is a rare and beautiful thing.
Eventually, the name Dave Douglas will likely be the only adequate descriptor or filing device for his music.
Be Still, released in September, is probably Douglas’ most quiet and understated recording to date. Of the nine tracks, five are hymns and folk songs that the artist’s recently deceased mother asked him to play at her memorial service. It is a wonderful record. The pretty, light, and limited voice of female vocalist/guitarist Aoife O’Donovan restrains the ensemble (Douglas, saxophonist Jon Iragabon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Still) to a small space with a low ceiling.
O’Donovan is on diversion from the bluegrass band Crooked Still, and could not be further from the stereotypical jazz chanteuse. Douglas gives her an a capella verse from “Barbara Allen” that is about a poleax, all warble and human nerve and trembling arpeggios. It is, one assumes, the music one might hear if roses were tying lover’s knots above one’s grave. And it underscores Douglas’ willingness and ability to forage free-range in order to feed instruments other than his own.
The album takes its title from the first song, “Be Still My Soul,” the late 19th-century hymn set to the melody of the Sibelius tone poem “Finlandia.” Douglas, O’Donovan, Mitchell, and Iragabon do an exquisite job of respectfully disassembling an ideal familiar song structure and reshaping it to suit their needs. The lyrics and melody gain depth and breadth. The results are both stilling and stirring.
Let us pray that Mrs. Douglas rests in peace. Should she wish to rest otherwise, let us hope that she—likewise the reader—has access to the music of her son.