On March 24th of this year the creative musician Dave Douglas turned 50 years old. The trumpeter decided to celebrate this personal milestone by starting a tour with his quintet that would take him to all 50 states of the union. On Friday evening, in New Haven CT, the Douglas quintet brought their music to the state of CT. Mr. Douglas had last been at the Firehouse back in October of 2005, the first year the now established venue had started their remarkable quest to present top quality music in the beautifully renovated firehouse on Crown Street. Eight years later Douglas has blossomed as both an artist and a composer. His music is a skillful amalgam of many elements of jazz, American and European folk, avant-garde, Klezmer and classical forms that has influenced his psyche along the way. To many, he represents the epitome of the independent artist, who despite the difficulties of a shrinking music industry, has managed to find his niche and flourish doing it his way. Since 1993 the prolific artist has released over thirty albums as a leader, the last 17 on his own label Greenleaf Music which he started in 2005.
His latest quintet is a brilliant young, adventurous group that includes the pianist Matt Mitchell, the tenor saxophonist Jon Irabagon, the bassist Linda Oh and the drummer Rudy Royston. On this night at the Firehouse the only change in personnel was the bassist Chris Tordini who took over duties for Linda Oh.
The Firehouse 12 is the perfect setting to experience an artist like Douglas. Entering the compact, starkly beautiful venue -- a chrysalis that allows you to watch up close the immersion of a butterfly -- you get the feel of being a part of a privileged elite. You are enveloped by the artist's vision and with an artist like Douglas it is a profoundly moving experience.
The set started out with the dirge-like "The Law of Historical Memory" from his latest album Time Travel, with a piano ostinato by pianist Matt Mitchell and some rolling drums by Rudy Roylston. The front line of Irabagon and Douglas playing solemn lines in perfect synchronization.
The band got into a swinging "Bridge to Nowhere" with its Monk-like phrasing. I hear elements of Dizzy and Freddie in Douglas's trumpet solos with a tremendous introspective edge that make them deeply personal. Drummer Roylston and Bassist Tordini anchor the music which is at times a difficult task.
On the beautifully touching "Be Still My Soul," a hymn that features Todini's solemn ,bellowing bass, and a marvelous dual line by Irabagon and Douglas, the inventive Roylston predominantly plays cymbals as Douglas reaches to the higher register during his solo in a passionate serenade. The song is a part of Douglas's 2012 release Be Still, which is a compilation of hymns and songs favored by the trumpeters late mother who passed away in 2011. Knowing she was dying, she requested that her son play some of these songs at her funeral and the poignancy of this music to Mr. Douglas is palpable in his playing.
"Beware of Doug" is a song Mr. Douglas explained was based on his experience at a concert camp in Colorado. An aging Mountain Lion, named Doug by the locals would unnervingly wander through the camp where Mr. Douglas was staying. The raucous fast paced music had a sense of adventure to it, with Irabagon and Douglas leading the way. Mr. Iragabon, the winner of the 2008 Thelonious Monk Saxophone competition, is a fluid player with a deep resonant tone. He masterfully negotiates his lines with the ease of a veteran and seems the perfect foil for his front line partner Mr.Douglas. Irabagon uses honks, slurs, screeches and deadened flaps during his solos. He pronates his toes and lifts himself on the balls of his feet during particularly reaching parts. In contrast Douglas is more pensive in his approach, using penetrating, liquid lines, that is until he reaches for the stars. The trumpeter pushes out his higher register notes with a fury that overtakes his face in a rush of blushing color that approaches crimson. He is totally absorbed in his music and he reels you in like a fish on a hook drawn to the glitter of the stunningly attractive gleam of the lure.
Perhaps the most moving piece of the night was Mr. Douglas' poignantly evocative duet work with pianist Matt Mitchell on the hymn "Wither Must I Wander." Pianist Mitchell is new to me. For the predominance of the night he played a rhythmic left hand and a dancing right, but his sound is glass-like, translucent. When he dances in crescendos up and down the keyboard it's like listening to the crystals on a massive chandelier being blown gently in the wind. So when Mr. Douglas plays this extraordinarily moving song, his trumpet's clarion call is framed within Mr. Mitchell's opulent glass palace. When Mr. Tordini and Mr. Royston join the song they do so with the most profound reverence with Royston playing cotton mallets and the bassist adding burnished chords. The song builds to a triumphant explosion of hope with Douglas's human voice-like sound coming from his horn. The audience sat in stunned silence, realizing they had witnessed something special , until the spell snapped and they broke out into appreciative applause.
The final song of the first set was titled "The Pidgeon and the Pie." Mr. Douglas starts out with a catchy repeating line relentlessly builds up tension. Royston is especially cacophonous playing all over the entire drum kit, as Irabagon and Douglas continually ascend behind Matt Mitchell's repeating piano lines. Saxophonist Irabagon solo, using repeated circular vamps that he builds from. He searches these ideas creating rhythmic loops within himself from which he emerges with new ideas, almost like a centrifuge whirling his admixture to the outer edges to discover what was embedded within. Mitchell offers a dazzlingly robust piano solo that has a wandering elegance. Royston's powerful drive is backed by Tordini's pulsing bass. The trumpeter and the saxophonist use the last few minutes of the song to bring it to a soft landing.
In speaking to Mr. Douglas after the set he indicated that he has many more states to go to complete his goal of bringing his music to the outer reaches of the country. To those who wish to see him here is a link to a schedule of his tour.