Arts & Culture
Fri April 26, 2002
Bow to a Master
A new album by trumpeter Dave Douglas serves up the infinite possibilities of the unique music of Miles Davis.
By Milo Miles
Boston, MA –
By now, albums that reprise or rework the jazz repertory must go beyond the exhausted debate over whether to overturn tradition or reaffirm its continuity. Disregarding category with every look back, the celebrated 38-year-old trumpeter and bandleader Dave Douglas is uncommonly fascinated with diverse traditions of music, but has never settled for polemic. Instead, he has explored fertile obsessions primarily in albums like ?In Our Lifetime? (devoted to Booker Little), ?Stargazer? (Wayne Shorter), and ?Soul on Soul? (Mary Lou Williams) with his group ?The Dave Douglas Sextet.? He has also used a one-off quartet to touch on Joni Mitchell with ?Moving Portrait.? These sets have included three or four tunes written by their subject artists, but they sound little like the originals.
The point of these meditations is what Dave Douglas uncovers about lyricism and groove by listening to other people. His is very reminiscent of Miles Davis?s fixation with Sly Stone and James Brown funk beats in his later years. The surprise with Douglas's new ?The Infinite? (Bluebird/RCA/BMG) is not that he dwells on Davis, but that he only glances at the now-popular heavy, dark 70s phase of the questing trumpeter.
Miles Davis's funk-fusion period prompted many tributes, at his death and well after, partly because it still sounds both contemporary and unfinished. The quintet on ?The Infinite? (Douglas, Chris Potter on tenor sax and bass clarinet, Uri Caine on electric piano, James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums) hovers somewhere around 1967's ?Sorcerer,? or perhaps at the brink of 1969's ?In a Silent Way.? Potter and Caine in particular, capture the smoldering dreaminess of Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul in Davis's bands of those times. At the same time, Douglas emphatically includes current pop numbers, making ?The Infinite? suggest a more harmonious incarnation of fragmented 80s Davis albums like ?You're Under Arrest.?
But Dave Douglas, as an interpreter, is more familiar and comfortable with modern pop than Davis was. If Douglas isn't stretching hard to encompass Bjork's ?Unison? and Mary J. Blige?s ?Crazy Games,? he isn't deforming himself either. He teases out the shrouded sensuality in both tracks, and, with the band sailing smoothly, he turns Rufus Wainwright's ?Poses? into the scion of the American songbook it needs to be -- today's funnier valentine. And those seduced by the airy poise of Douglas?s ?Yorke,? which he says was inspired by Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke, will be disappointed if they turn to the group?s albums hoping to find its equal.
Douglas has said he wanted ?a direct record that would communicate on many levels? through the let-it-happen cohesion of the celebrated Davis lineups. He gets the desired effect more than one might imagine possible in numbers like ?Penelope.? The tune begins like one of the girls'-name songs that Davis used to express the romantic heat and tenderness he found so elusive in life, but opens up for Potter's most bravura and expansive statements on the record, a solo that bristles with in-flight invention. Riding the floating rhythms of Genus and Penn, the horns and piano cut loose for ?Deluge,? the one interlude with the dark, heavy Miles dynamics. Finally, Caine, who gets the most well rounded Fender Rhodes tone in years, concludes the program perfectly as the featured soloist on ?Argo,? a reflective farewell touched by funk.
Those who prize Dave Douglas for his clear thinking, insights into arrangements and band organization, may overlook the fact that he's equally devoted to emotional clarity and vivid passions. ?The Infinite? is a triumph for that side of Douglas and for a group performing with what yet another trumpeter, Don Cherry, called complete communion.
The Dave Douglas New Quintet (with Rick Margitza in place of Chris Potter) will play at the Regattabar Club in Cambridge, MA, on May 1st and 2nd, 2002. Tickets are $16 and can be purchased over the phone by calling (617) 876-7777.