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Since his first solo recordings in the mid-’90s, Dave Douglas has worked hard, it seems, to avoid downtime. The trumpeter’s got at least five current bands—a trio, two quintets, a sextet, and a double-quartet tribute to Don Cherry—as well as a number of older groups that will reconvene “by special request.” And that’s not to mention his occasional gigs with John Zorn’s Jewish music ensemble Masada, and his role as co-curator of the annual Festival of New Trumpet Music, an event that began in 2002. One might expect Douglas’ trumpet work to be similarly busy, yet his improvisational style is crisp, accessible, and, most importantly, a model of concision. How does he reconcile his artistic restlessness with his instrumental conservatism? His latest band, Brass Ecstasy, offers a hint. Though the quintet is unusual in its brass-and-drums configuration and enterprising in its combination of avant-garde impulses and New Orleanian rhythms, it’s also economical enough to allow Douglas to do what he does best. On Spirit Moves, the band’s first recording, the trumpeter is well-served by his rhythm section, which, due to the constraints of its unorthodox makeup (tuba and drums), favors tight, almost rock-like gestures. Tubist Marcus Rojas pumps out pared-down riffs that might seem modest coming from an upright bassist. And drummer Nasheet Waits works off of Rojas, shuffling around the minimal motifs as if he were writing for a street fair rather than a jazz club. The populist rhythms offer balance when, as he does during a mid-album stretch, Douglas pays tribute to some of his more esoteric influences. “Bowie” is a jaunty but digressive homage to Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie, who also led a band called Brass Fantasy. And “Rava,” a melancholic ballad, evokes the slow motion lyricism of Enrico Rava, an Italian trumpeter who has been a connoisseurs’ favorite since the fusion era. The beauty of Douglas’ referential approach is that you don’t need to know who Fats Waller is to enjoy “Fats,” a buoyant number marked by trombonist Luis Bonilla and French horn player Vincent Chancey’s serpentine horn lines. Nor do you need patience for extemporization: Douglas, in particular, limits his improv to spiky exclamations made between phrases. There are, of course, solos on Spirit Moves, but they are almost as compact as the compositions themselves. Douglas, who is less mischievous than Bowie and more gregarious than Rava, manages to say a lot without taking a lot of time to say it. When he peels away from the stacked harmonies on “Twilight Of The Dogs,” a song reminiscent of Chicago’s late-’60s hits, he spends less than a minute working his way back to the theme. What he does in his brief, spacious solo is to remind us that, for all of its pop-friendliness, the song is rooted in the cool jazz of the ’50s. One track later, on “Bowie,” he’s spitting out references to ragtime. Is there any part of jazz history that Douglas doesn’t care about? If so, you’d never guess it.
Dave Douglas and Brass Ecstasy perform Monday, June 22, at Blues Alley.