A throaty blast from Jericho

Dave Douglas | Arnolfini, Bristol
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The Independent Culture

In an age when most jazz trumpeters are content to emulate the recessive wheedling of mid-period Miles Davis, only without the requisite emotional depth, Dave Douglas comes at you with all valves blazing, his unapologetic, open-throated roar expelling a corridor of air that can knock you flat at 10 paces. He's such a technically accomplished player that his solos come as quite a shock, as if you can't quite believe that the instrument (which has been losing out in the popularity stakes to the saxophone for years now) is still capable of such power and majesty.

In an age when most jazz trumpeters are content to emulate the recessive wheedling of mid-period Miles Davis, only without the requisite emotional depth, Dave Douglas comes at you with all valves blazing, his unapologetic, open-throated roar expelling a corridor of air that can knock you flat at 10 paces. He's such a technically accomplished player that his solos come as quite a shock, as if you can't quite believe that the instrument (which has been losing out in the popularity stakes to the saxophone for years now) is still capable of such power and majesty.

And because his style betrays no obvious debt, it's as if Douglas holds the whole history of trumpeting in the bell of his horn. There, snuggled into the metallic curves of brass, is the very sound of the trumpet itself, from anonymous battlers at the walls of Jericho, to buglers sounding "Last Post", to the ersatz bleat of Herb Alpert and his Tijuana Brass. There's even a touch of corny old Eddie Calvert slipping a vibrato-thick lip to "Oh, Mein Papa" - not that Douglas would have heard of him.

That the 37-year-old New Jersey native is this good is no longer news. Last year he was voted Jazz Artist of the Year by the magazines Down Beat and Jazz Times, as well as this newspaper. After years of toiling at the sharp end of the avant garde and recording for small, independent labels in Europe and Canada, Douglas won himself a contract with one of the majors, RCA-Victor, but he has so far managed to avoid the compromises that such a career-path almost inevitably entails. The Arts Council-sponsored Contemporary Music Network tour, of which this gig was the second date of seven, offered no easy berth, either. Douglas was to appear with two separate bands: the quartet Charms of the Night Sky in the first half, and the Tiny Bell Trio in the second.

What was immediately evident in the first set at Bristol (and which anyone familiar with him already knew) is that Douglas isn't just a brilliant instrumentalist; he's clever too. While this may sound patronising, it's not meant to. In jazz these days, great chops coupled with an intelligence about what to do with them is a rare combination. And Charms of the Night Sky is an unusual, exacting, band, with Douglas's trumpet placed in a sophisticated, almost Berlin-cabaret-style setting of double bass, violin and accordion. They play composed pieces rather than free-form vamps, and while the ensemble passages are handled with unerring grace, the improvised solos, particularly by Douglas and violinist Mark Feldman, proved quite astonishingly fluent. When Feldman played the cadenza to a new tune called "Irrational Exuberance", you simply marvelled. Previously a studio musician in Nashville, Feldman somehow combines a startling expertise in avant-garde techniques - including scraping his strings in a circular motion as if operating a Black and Decker sander - with weird hoedown effects. Guy Klucevsek on accordion and Greg Cohen on bass were almost equally adept.

After this, the second half with the Tiny Bell Trio came as a slight disappointment, if only because of growing trumpet-fatigue - whether in me or in Douglas I wasn't quite sure. The band features the remarkable drumming of Jim Black, who is so unerringly musical that anything he does, however daft, comes out sounding great, even if he's only hitting the tom-toms with a plastic toy (which he appears to do for much of the time). Guitarist Brad Shepik manages to coax an alarming range of noises from his lo-fi set-up, but after the delicacy of Charms of the Night Sky, the Tiny Bell Trio is perhaps too much like simple knock-about fun, and ceases to be much fun at all. In a game of two halves, however, Dave Douglas came out the winner at least once.

Dave Douglas: The Wardrobe, Leeds (0113 245 5570) tonight; Live Theatre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (0191 232 1232) Monday; Assembly Rooms, Derby (01332 255800) Tuesday. The new album 'Thousand Evenings' (RCA-Victor) is out now.

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