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Dave Douglas Quintet: Dave Douglas Quintet: Meaning & Mystery

John Kelman By

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Dave Douglas Quintet
Meaning & Mystery
Greenleaf Music

Some artists use a revolving door policy to inspire them to take their music to new places. Others prefer to hone their sound with a constant group setting, letting time create the kind of shared trust that permits each member of the group to take risks with full confidence that the others will intuitively follow—or, conversely, take that risk and push in yet another direction. Trumpeter Dave Douglas has worked with a number of regular groups over the years, but his latest quintet of six years—featuring pianist Uri Caine, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn—has shown the greatest capacity for growth.

Meaning & Mystery finds the group making its first personnel change: tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin replaces Chris Potter, who's too busy with Dave Holland and his own quartet. While Potter's star has risen more rapidly, this may well be the year that McCaslin finally achieves greater recognition. In addition to this release by Douglas' group, he's got two new records of his own—the modern mainstream blowing session Give and Go (Criss Cross, 2006), and the more overtly conceptualized Soar (Sunnyside, 2006). McCaslin's tone is less muscular than Potter's, but he possesses his own kind of energy, and a unique ability to build solos in a logical yet always emotionally invested manner.

In a 2004 interview, Douglas described the writing process for his quintet: "...my rule of thumb is to put as little as possible on the page in terms of notes and do as much as possible with a verbal discussion and description of what I'm looking for; to let people find their own way with the material. Meaning and Mystery may be his most sparsely written disc yet, with a sense of freedom that manages to eclipse the quintet's previous exceptional recordings, The Infinite (Bluebird, 2002) and Strange Liberation (Bluebird, 2004).

Starting with a single repeated note, "Song For Suzannah finds Douglas gradually elaborating on it as the group enters with a 12/8 figure that provides the song's harmonic core. As the melody finally emerges, there's a brief harmonic shift, but in the end Penn's polyrhythmic fluidity, Caine's bell-like tone on Fender Rhodes, and the interplay between Douglas and McCaslin are what give this relatively sparse concept a sense of forward motion. Genus also delivers a lithe solo that manages to be as melodic as it is fleet-fingered.

The quintet's relaxed and unhurried approach has never been more evident than on "Culture Wars, where Genus' hypnotic ostinato suggests In a Silent Way-era Miles, as do Caine's dense chordal clusters. Douglas builds his solo methodically, leading into a melody that finally emerges at the three-minute mark, orbiting around McCaslin, sometimes playing in unison, elsewhere implying a larger sound through use of broader voicings. McCaslin's solo combines the intellectualism of Wayne Shorter with an evocative sense of urgency all his own. Some musicians treat electric instruments like the Fender Rhodes with disdain, but Caine's solo takes full advantage of the instrument's unique texture, succeeding in ways that simply would not work on its older acoustic cousin.

Douglas' charts may have a penchant for brevity, but that doesn't mean his music lacks its own unique challenges. The start-stops of the more energetically swinging "The Sheik of Things to Come and altered blues of "The Team both encourage the quintet to explore new places, while the Tim Berne-inspired blues "Tim Bits breaks up periods of steady rhythm with the kind of idiosyncratic and almost mathematical conceits that are so definitive of Berne's style. Elsewhere, the ambling "Blues to Steve Lacy and rubato "Invocation sound as lyrical as Douglas has ever been.

Sometimes changing a member of the band can have an unsettling effect, even destroying the delicate balance that can evolve over a longer period of time. But McCaslin manages to fit into the group so well that it sounds as if he's been there since its inception. It's hard to imagine this quintet getting any better, but with each successive release, the group has become more tightly knit and able to take greater risks. One of the quintet's greatest strengths is a shared understanding that masks the fact that it's often hovering at the edges of a musical precipice.

Rather than falling into the pitfall of complacency or the comfort zone of predictability, Douglas and his quintet continue to evolve and explore new areas, still retaining an identifiable sound which draws from so many sources that isolating them is futile. Along with Dave Holland and Ken Vandermark, Dave Douglas is one of the most innovative leaders on the scene today, with a voice that is distinctive and forward-looking, even as it remains reverential to past traditions.

Tracks: Song for Susannah; Culture Wars; The Sheik of Things to Come; Blues to Steve Lacy; Tim Bits; Twombly Infinites; Elk's Club; Invocation; The Team.

Personnel: Dave Douglas: trumpet; Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone; Uri Caine: Fender Rhodes; James Genus: acoustic bass; Clarence Penn: drums.

Visit Dave Douglas on the web.

Title: Dave Douglas Quintet: Meaning & Mystery | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Greenleaf Music


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