Dave Douglas at Zanzibar Blue

Victor L. Schermer By

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Douglas is the rare musician who is creative and experimental, with a wide-ranging variety of tastes, yet firmly within the jazz tradition.
Dave Douglas Quintet
Zanzibar Blue
Philadelphia, PA
January 26-27

As I walked along Broad Street to Zanzibar Blue, I passed the Academy of Music, where some Mummers were tuning up, and went by a huge tent and some media trucks that were set up for the 105th Anniversary celebration of the Academy with special guests Prince Charles and Camilla. I felt miffed that they didn't invite moi, but then I realized that I'd much rather hear some good jazz than put up with all that pomp and circumstance. Dave Douglas and his group certainly came through, providing us with music fit for a Prince.

Trumpeter and composer Douglas is one of the most highly touted musicians on the jazz scene today. He is in great demand for live performances and recordings, recently took on the role of Music Director at the Banff Jazz Festival, and has received numerous awards and composing fellowships. At this first set on a Friday night at Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia, I found out the reason for his success. In addition to his masterful technique, Douglas is the rare musician who is creative and experimental, with a wide-ranging variety of tastes, yet firmly within the jazz tradition.

Combining the richness of diverse styles, from classical to pops to Latin to blues, Douglas and his fine group provided enough thrills and musical excitement to more than fill the large (and unfortunately noisily talkative) room at Zanzibar. In a set consisting entirely of original compositions by Douglas and his group, evocations of jazz history gave a vintage feel to music that pushed the limits of the instruments and the art form.

During the first tune, a Douglas original called "Earmarks, what came across immediately was the power backup of drummer Clarence Penn, a guy with braided hair and a joyous smile, who puts his whole body to work generating intense rhythm to energize the music. Then Douglas quickly drew attention with his assertive sound and pyrotechnics.

When Donny McCaslin came on board on tenor sax, he proved for me to be the shining star of the evening. His sound reminded me very much of Dexter Gordon's room-filling resonance, and his style could be understood as post-Gordon, if you will, with a tendency to flatten notes while going into realms of modern harmonics more indebted to Coltrane than Gordon. McCaslin has a clear, transparent sound throughout the range of the tenor sax, and his articulation is almost letter-perfect. He plays with astonishing clarity and, when the music calls for it, speed. A complete artist on the saxophone, he doesn't let you forget that the instrument is a respected member of the woodwind family, not just for marching bands and jazz joints.

There followed another Douglas original, this time a ballad called "The Painter's Way, dedicated to his wife, Susanna, in which he inserted a motif of the folk song "O Susanna, working up to further echoes of American folk themes, reflecting his recent interest in the music of Aaron Copland. This is Douglas' "earmark. He uses all musical forms and genres to inspire his compositions and improvisation, and he does it in a way that is true to the jazz idiom. I was reminded of Bix Beiderbecke's deep interest in Debussy and the French impressionists. Douglas has a similar sort of preoccupation—not just a passing interest— in forms other than jazz as such. The piece evolved in the hands of the group from a reflective ballad to an intense dialogue involving Latin and blues themes. Here, Douglas outdid himself in a striking blues-based solo.

Fender-Rhodes player Deron Johnson's inspiration kept building from this tune onwards, so that his presence in the group became more apparent and valued through the course of the set. No doubt a Corea-inspired keyboardist, he exhibited a mastery of many modes, especially the musical idioms of Latino-based pianists. Bassist Scott Colley played with delicacy and sensitivity rare on the instrument, demonstrating why acoustic bass still rules the roost, even though amplified bass and bass guitar are once again becoming increasingly fashionable.

A song by Douglas entitled "Blues to Steve Lacy had a casual, laid-back feeling reminiscent of early Gerry Mulligan. The set concluded with a song called "Little Penn, dedicated to Clarence Penn's child, who was in the audience. All the guys, especially Penn, blew out the electricity on their respective solos on this number.


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