A strange change from minor to major

Major-label involvement with left-field jazz explorers has always proved tricky. Can the trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas pull it off with his new LP?
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If jazz is the patient lying comatose on the operating table, Dave Douglas is the surgeon charged with bringing it back to life. It's a tough job but somebody's got to do it, and Douglas is unusually well qualified.

Now aged 36, the American trumpeter and composer has already gathered what for many jazz musicians would be a lifetime's experience. After studying music at New York University, Barcelona, Berklee and the New England Conservatory, he's played bop with Horace Silver, confrontational art music with John Zorn's Masada, and a whole range of styles - from Balkan folk to free jazz - with his own various groups.

Douglas is also - and this is the point - extraordinarily good; the most exciting jazz voice to emerge for an age. His music, both as a composer and an instrumentalist, is intellectually stimulating, but still packs a visceral punch. Heard live, he can sound every bit as in the tradition as Wynton Marsalis, blowing expressionist raspberries of Louis Armstrong-like phrases; on record, he tends to favour carefully wrought frameworks for his compositions, in which individual brilliance is subordinate to the big picture.

Recently, Douglas has begun to get the acclaim he deserves, winning polls in Down Beat and being named artist of the year by Jazz Times. It was only a matter of time before major record labels came knocking on his Brooklyn door.

Next week, RCA Victor (property of Bertelsmann Music Group) release the first fruit of the four-album contract they signed Douglas to earlier this year. It's a remarkable deal whereby Douglas is to be given carte blanche to do what he wants. Historically, such arrangements have not lasted very long. When another hero of the avant-garde, saxophonist David Murray, signed to CBS/Sony in 1989, the contract was cancelled after just one excellent album. Around the same time - though just the thought now seems surreal - both Don Cherry and Cecil Taylor were contracted briefly to Herb Alpert's A&M Records.

Since then, however, interesting new jazz artists and major record companies have become even stranger bedfellows. Most of the few musicians signed to major labels tend to be what Douglas's contemporary and occasional colleague Don Byron calls "the cats in the suits"; youngish black Americans who despite their talent, are made to operate as virtual clones of Wynton or Branford Marsalis, the only commercially successful American jazz musicians of the last decade or so. In contrast, Dave Douglas has made his reputation by recording almost exclusively for independent, usually European, labels, such as Soul Note, hatHut, Avant, Arabesque, DIW and Winter and Winter.

Douglas's new album for RCA Victor is particularly interesting in this respect, because it represents a symbolic return to the root and branch of the jazz tradition. Entitled Soul On Soul, it's partly a re-working of the music of one of the most neglected figures in all of jazz: the pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981). Typically, what Douglas makes of Williams is far from the dull obeisance of most "tribute" sets. Although original Douglas compositions outnumber those by Williams herself, Soul On Soul joins an already established line of Douglas tributes to artists as various as Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell.

Last month in New York, Douglas and his sextet played a week at the venerable Village Vanguard club to mark the American launch of the album. The occasion once again had a symbolic importance: musicians from the experimental "downtown" scene were ensconced in the very citadel of established New York jazz, with portraits of Miles Davis and John Coltrane looking down on them from the authentically sweaty walls. An hour before the packed Saturday night performance began, I talked to Dave Douglas in a Chinese restaurant across the road.

"Independent record labels have been wonderful to me, and it was the only way I could have taken the path I did, but you can't change the fact that they have limited distribution," he says. "Now the music will be available, and that will lead people to other things I've done, especially on musician-run independents. I also felt the approach from RCA Victor was kind of unique for someone like me who doesn't fit into a box. I met with several major labels at the time these offers came up and I said I needed complete control, I needed to produce, and that each project would use a different band and approach. RCA said OK."

The notion of paying tribute to earlier jazz composers that is reflected in the homage to Mary Lou Williams on Soul On Soul is one that has attracted Douglas since he made the outstanding album In Our Lifetime in 1995, which was dedicated to the overlooked trumpeter Booker Little (who died in 1961 aged 23).

"I avoided playing jazz-sounding music for a lot of years because I thought there was nothing original that I could do", he says. "Instead, I developed a string group and the Tiny Bell Trio, and experimented with electronics and weird instruments. Then, in 1994 I thought I was ready to tackle this beast called jazz again. I began to transcribe pieces by Booker Little and to play them in small groups, and it gave me the impetus to write my own music and to move forward. In improvised music today, the musicians can play in any style at the drop of a hat, so the question becomes not what you put in, but what you leave out. These homage projects helped to shape that."

The Mary Lou Williams connection took a number of years to develop. "Horace Silver used to talk about how important she was, but I was only 23 and I wasn't interested. Then I heard her Zodiac Suite in the trio version from 1944, and I started reading about her and collecting her music. I realised how ignored she is, and how enormous the span of what she did was; she was a pioneer in a very honest and genuine way. Because I feel I'm a composer as much or more than I am a trumpeter, I felt an affinity with her. The more I listened to her, the more I thought that it would be really great music to play."

At the Village Vanguard, Douglas and his group tear through the music from the album with abandon. It's rich, pulsating, stuff and the crowd - which is much younger than the usual Vanguard audience - goes wild. The patient is showing remarkable signs of recovery already.

'Soul On Soul' by Dave Douglas is released on Monday on RCA Victor (www.davedouglas.com)