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Nashville Scene Horning In

Trumpeter Douglas is poised to garner attention with two markedly different releases

By Ron Wynn

MARCH 6, 2000:  Boosters envision trumpeter Dave Douglas as a prime candidate for the 21st century's first jazz superstar; detractors consider him Exhibit A for the public's tendency to reject anything labeled as jazz. Douglas has dominated industry polls the past two years: Jazz Times tabbed him Artist of the Year for 1999, and he's won the same honor for two consecutive years from the New York Jazz Critics Association. He also topped three different categories in the 1999 Down Beat Critics Poll under the banner "Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition": Artist of the Year, Trumpeter of the Year, and Composer of the Year. Topping things off, he recently inked a multi-album deal with RCA/BMG, which outbid Sony and Blue Note for his services.

Despite the numerous awards, Douglas is not as well-known among jazz fans as Wynton Marsalis or even Joe Lovano, mainly because his recorded output has been largely for independent and/or foreign labels. He has spent the bulk of his career toiling outside the mainstream; he's worked extensively with renegade composer/saxophonist John Zorn in the group Masada, playing a broad mixture of traditional Jewish songs, rock-influenced pop, and outside jazz. Douglas' best-known group, the Tiny Bell Trio, careens from Eastern European folk to rock, then back to the jazz avant-garde, spurning such established staples as show tunes, swing ballads, and blues/gospel-inflected numbers. Even when Douglas has ventured into conventional jazz settings, his approach has hardly been orthodox; his solos frequently include torrents of notes and blazing machine-gun phrases, as well as probing passages that develop slowly, then explode into dynamic statements.

His influences are equally diverse, and his favorite musicians aren't even trumpeters. Douglas frequently cites saxophonists Wayne Shorter, Ornette Coleman, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, but he's also a huge fan of classical icons Anton Webern and Igor Stravinsky, as well as jazz masters Duke Ellington and Horace Silver. A prodigious composer, Douglas has studied genres ranging from boogie-woogie to baroque, and on occasion has even included circus songs on his albums. Ever since he emerged on the scene in the mid-'60s, relocating to New York from his native New Jersey, Douglas has never locked himself into any mode.

Douglas began attracting wider attention in 1993 with the LP Parallel Lines, then hit the jackpot in 1996 with Stargazer, a Wayne Shorter tribute LP. The trumpeter's new BMG deal ensures that he at least has a shot at even broader exposure, but he hasn't deserted his indie roots yet. Witness his two new releases, Leap of Faith and Soul on Soul, the former on the independent label Arabesque, the latter on RCA/BMG. Taken together, these discs not only demonstrate Douglas' versatility, they also highlight the subtle yet significant difference between recording for small companies and large ones.

Leap of Faith features 11 Douglas originals, with one song clocking in at less than two minutes and two others at nearly 10. The lineup includes a tenor saxophonist, a bassist, and a drummer, and the stylistic menu changes from song to song. The title cut, "Mistaken Identity," and "Continental Divide" are combative, slashing numbers in which Douglas nearly mutilates the melody at times, while tenor sax player Chris Potter provides contrasting unison swirls or departs with his own chaotic touches. Other numbers, such as "Emmenthaler," resemble classical pieces with virtually no solos or improvisation. Bassist James Genus and drummer Ben Perowsky reject the rigidly defined roles frequently imposed on rhythm players. Their playing is freewheeling and loose, and both get space to make individual statements, but they always find their way back to the tempo. In short, jazz fans who enjoy the unexpected will be attracted to Leap of Faith.

When the news broke that Douglas had signed with RCA/BMG, there were some raised eyebrows, given his track record for radical compositions and instrumentation. But any fears about Douglas drifting into a "contemporary" morass should be dispelled by Soul on Soul. Still, the CD is a departure from past releases. It's partly a tribute to the sorely neglected boogie-woogie and swing pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams; four of her selections are covered, among them the wonderful "Waltz Boogie" and "Play It Momma."

Douglas heads three groups here. On nine of the date's 13 pieces, there's a sextet featuring tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Chris Speed, trombonist Joshua Roseman, pianist Uri Caine, drummer Joey Baron, and lone holdover Genus on bass. Speed's tenor playing is not for tender ears; his honks, octave leaps, screams, and blasts on "Ageless" and "Multiples" will no doubt alienate listeners who loathe late-period John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. Saxophonist/clarinetist Greg Tardy swells the lineup to a septet on three numbers; his looping clarinet and rumbling bass clarinet mix with Speed's tenor theatrics for some fiery segments. Roseman is almost overwhelmed in this company; he's a competent trombonist, but his solos can't match those of Speed or Tardy.

Douglas orchestrates the fray, sets up the songs, and either engages in torrid dialogues or adds spry accompaniment. He's least engaging when covering Williams' tunes; he doesn't rework them very much, playing it almost straight during his solos on "Aries" and "Mary's Idea." As expected, pianist Caine gets the spotlight here. He's at his best on "Waltz Boogie," and though not as adept at straight boogie as Williams, he offers a decent approximation of her prowess. On the other tunes, his solo space is limited, and he clicks more during the transitions between other solos. It's drummer Baron, a veteran of outside sessions, who takes rhythmic honors. While Genus supplies steadiness, Baron provides pop and power, bringing a nimble energy and assertiveness that enables Douglas, Speed, and company to dart in and out of a song's framework, playing with zest and abandon.

At the minimum, Soul on Soul will introduce Dave Douglas to new listeners; hopefully, some of them will embrace, or at least sample, his unique approach rather than reject it solely due to its distinctiveness. Douglas' music isn't for everyone, but it deserves wider attention and acceptance.

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