Dave Douglas, the much-feted trumpeter who’s known to make such forward-looking albums such as The Tiny Bell Trio, Freak In, Strange Liberation and Moonshine, has lately made a tactical retreat to the basics. And that’s just fine; he’s done this before.
Time Travel is, outwardly, mainline modern jazz performed by a mainline small jazz combo of trumpet (Douglas), sax (Jon Irabagon), piano (Matt Mitchell), bass (Linda Oh) and (drums) Rudy Royston. A quick follow up to his dedication to his mother, Be Still (2012), Time Travel could be seen as the proper introduction of Douglas’ new quintet, with all new Douglas material, no vocals and not being themed on a particular topic or person. Just a regular ol’ small combo date.
Or is it?
Whenever Douglas steps back from the abyss, he typically returns a slightly different musician than he was before his journey into the wild, and the more you dig into Time Travel the more those nuanced alterations become clear. His candid, direct, but technically dazzling trumpet manner is the same as it ever was (thankfully), but there’s a perceptible spring in his step throughout this seven originals that I’ll just chalk up to being in the company of these dynamic supporting performers all roughly a generation younger than him. If he didn’t write these songs with them in mind, he at least enabled them to find their own place within each of them.
Even within this relatively conventional context, Douglas comes up with fresh ideas, or at the least, fresh takes on old ones. “Bridge To Nowhere” consists of a short, repeating idea, used as a surface on which crisp solos by Irabagon and Mitchell gain traction. For the title track, Douglas weaves complementing harmonic threads into a complete melodic fabric. And then he uncorks a smokin’ trumpet solo. Alternately, “Law Of Historical Memory” is a pondering, slow moving piece, which allows players to take their time articulating their solo statements, while “Beware Of Doug” is a jaunty, cheery tune where Douglas show great control and even hints at Dixieland jazz. Irabagon displays good sense of rhythm during his turn to lead.
Irabagon, ever adaptable, plays in a soulful, angular way on “Little Feet,” not too unlike Wayne Shorter. Mitchell plays his piano with a terrific touch not heard from many of the younger piano players; his lithe articulations on “Little Feet” and the flowery, flowing solo on the pensive, spiritual “The Pigeon And The Pie” give testimony to that.
Royston is a central — if not the central — figure in Douglas’ backing band, and he’s never sounded better. On “Bridge to Nowhere” he is playing double time, placing supreme confidence in Oh to hold down the fort, a confidence she plenty justifies. On “Time Travel” he’s practically soloing in sync with Mitchell. He’s vigorous, commanding and agile on “Garden State.” And on every opportunity, he steps outside his traditional role to make the soloists sound better.
Long time followers of Dave Douglas know he’s not going to bring the freak every time out, but he usually delivers on quality ensemble performances. He does just that for Time Travel, which does nothing to nudge at the boundaries of jazz, but revels in its creamy filling.
Time Travel goes on sale April 9, by Greenleaf Music.
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