THE CRITICS: JAZZ: The man with the horn of plenty

Dave Douglas Cheltenham Jazz Festival Jan Gabarek/Hilliard Ensemble King's College Chapel, Cambridge
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The Independent Culture
There probably aren't more than a thousand people in this country who know about the American trumpeter Dave Douglas. This is a cause for concern, because he's just about the best thing in the whole wide world of jazz right now. Although still only 35, Douglas has a stack of albums to his name already, but most of them are on small labels from Germany, Italy or Japan. Accordingly, word has been slow in getting out, despite the fact that Douglas was voted both best trumpeter and best jazz artist in last year's Down Beat magazine poll. He's so good, however, that it can't be long before he gets the exposure he deserves and Wynton Marsalis begins to eat his heart out.

On the closing day of last weekend's Cheltenham International Jazz Festival, Douglas appeared with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Brad Shepik under the name of the Tiny Bell Trio, as if in homage to some funky old- school journeyman bandleader. They produced a show that blended post- modern diversions and old-fashioned instrumental virtuosity to such startling effect that it was as if the often tired-sounding genre of jazz had not only been reborn, but had come out kicking for all it was worth. In a repertoire which consisted mainly of original compositions, with occasional departures into what one would normally consider to be the mutually exclusive territories of Thelonious Monk and Robert Schumann, Douglas displayed the full range of his incredible talent.

Technically he's a superb player, capable of the most delicate and plangent effects, but Douglas also recovers for his instrument all the transgressive qualities of great jazz trumpeters from the past. Like Armstrong, he has an effortlessly big sound, and he can growl like Ellington's Bubber Miley or wheedle in a high register like Kenny Wheeler. On the Schumann material, he alternated between the full-toned clarity of a classical soloist and the expressive smears of a New Orleans "primitive". To cap it all, Douglas even made a good joke, insisting that Schumann was "cool for copyright" because the German guards who'd stopped him at the border had inspected the charts and pronounced them OK.

That Douglas proved such a marvel was at least partly due to his band. Jim Black on drums follows the example of European players like Han Bennink or Steve Arguelles in moving between conventional kit-work, hand-drumming and the eccentric employment of various things to be shaken, rattled and rolled. At one point he even played a solo on what a man next to me confidently pronounced to be a penis-enlarger. For a guitarist, Brad Sheplik proved unusually subtle, avoiding all the tired cliches of the instrument in favour of furiously inventive rhythm playing. By the time the group finished their set, you felt like a convert to some new utopian cause.

That jazz has a future was welcome news. It also has a past, and it's getting longer all the time. For two of the pieces on their new album, Mnemosyne, Jan Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble go back two thousand years to ancient Greece. The European concert premiere of the music was held at King's College Chapel, Cambridge last Wednesday and the event provided a stunningly effective amalgam of music and architecture.

Sometimes it was hard to tell one from the other. Starting from a position just in front of the great organ loft, both Garbarek and the Hilliards went on frequent walkabouts to test the acoustic qualities of various points of the building. With the chapel acting as an enormous resonator, voices and saxophone created the most subtle and varied of effects, ranging from quiet murmurs to column-vibrating intensity. Beautiful as it was, with the voice of counter-tenor David James sounding even more like an angel than usual, the performance did rather remain in the one key, however sublime. At 80 minutes or so, it also exceeded my ability to appreciate it by a good half an hour.

Seated in a church, it was all too easy to play the devil's advocate. Although the music is marvellous to listen to at home, where its ambient qualities can help to make doing the washing-up a joy, once deprived of detergent the relentless high-mindedness does seem a little lacking in ordinary human warmth and emotion. It's beautiful all right, but I left the chapel longing to hear some good old shit-kicking country music. Even a Methodist hymn might have sufficed.