Dave Douglas: Strange Liberation

Dave Douglas
Strange Liberation

On March 23 of last year, jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas turned 40--which in official jazz terms made him no longer young, but still "youngish." To celebrate having lived exactly 13 years longer than Felicity star Keri Russell, Douglas did a weeklong stint at New York's Jazz Standard, where he performed with all 10 (!) of the regularly working bands he has led on and off since his 1993 recording debut. Douglas is the king of jazz's current crop of eclectics: He's the kind of guy who shows up at a Jewish wedding with a tango band and proceeds to play Bjork covers. He's also a brilliant player and a tricky, prolific composer, as evidenced on Strange Liberation, his strongest effort since moving to RCA/BMG/Bluebird/Whatever in 2000.

Because of the stylistic diffusion of his work, Douglas is likely to be hit and miss for all but the most catholic of listeners. He can be too outside for mainstreamers, too mainstream for outsiders. He's made some of the prettiest jazz of the past decade, but some of his ballads are altogether too pretty. "November" (from Freak In), for example, suffered from an excess of synthesizer syrup, while his cover of Rufus Wainwright's "Poses" (from The Infinite) seemed intent on taking the song out of a cabaret and into an elevator. Strange Liberation, which features Douglas's quintet with guitarist Brill Frisell as a special guest, has a lot of pretty stuff, but nothing is too sticky. The pastoral "Mountains from the Train" takes an almost childlike lead melody and dresses it with unexpected harmonies, while Frisell coaxes magic out of his trusty delay pedal. And if "The Jones" had appeared on one of Wayne Shorter's '60s albums, 26 jazz bands would be playing it tonight and you'd be humming it on the way home.

As on the Douglas Quintet's The Infinite, pianist Uri Caine uses a Rhodes, bringing to mind old Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea records. There's nothing musty about this music, however, and the group--which also features bassist James Genus, drummer Clarence Penn, and multi-instrumentalist Chris Potter ranging from stuttering tenor sax to dulcet bass clarinet--plays with big-eared sensitivity that's very much in the moment. It's now clear that Dave Douglas is the hippest almost-41-year-old bald guy playing music today. May he be forever youngish.

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