A year ago I played Dave Douglas’s 2001 The Infinite for two friends, an avant-garde percussionist and a West Coast composer and performance artist, both of whom prefer boundary-stretching jazz to the likes of Wynton Marsalis, at whose name they practically sneered. Though they liked it, they professed to hear nothing experimental in Douglas, who sounded to them as conventional as Marsalis —just semi-electric and a touch edgier.
Douglas and Marsalis are usually seen as epitomizing not just opposing temperaments, as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie once were, but irreconcilable philosophies of jazz. Although Douglas has succeeded in staying above the fray, the two have been waging a grotesque parody of a trumpet battle, through surrogates in print rather than on the bandstand. But maybe my friends were noticing something insiders have missed—without kissing electronica and Balkan polyrhythms goodbye, Douglas has been flirting with the mainstream since forming his quintet with Chris Potter on saxophones and Uri Caine on keyboards. Like Marsalis, he was an impressionable teenager during that null period in the 1970s when Miles Davis dominated jazz in absentia, and in the same way that Marsalis’s Black Codes sounded like the Miles LP that should have come after Nefertiti, Douglas’s new Strange Liberation puzzles over Miles in the Sky and Filles de Kilimanjaro, where Davis first braved electric instruments and the doubled-up rhythms of progressive rock.
But unlike Marsalis’s early LPs, Strange Liberation never sounds merely imitative. Douglas and Potter venture further away from Davis and Wayne Shorter than Wynton and Branford did, and Douglas has the edge as a composer. In effect, the album is a showcase for added starter Bill Frisell, whose guitar slashes and burns the way it used to with Power Tools and Naked City but rarely does anymore with his own bands. Minus Frisell at the Village Vanguard last month, these pieces were no less potent. Douglas has absorbed the lessons of the 1980s, in particular Henry Threadgill’s strategy of unfolding theme and improvisations simultaneously before merging them into something unlike either. Just so in the title number, on the CD and even more at the Vanguard, where the tune began suspensefully, with a nearly tempo-less soliloquy by Caine on Fender Rhodes. The set’s highlight, as on the CD, was a loping variant on “Blue Monk” called “Skeeter-ism,” which was savvy jazz criticism as well as great jazz, capturing what was so wonderful about Monk by isolating his shambling rhythms from his shambolic intervals.
As for Marsalis, his canon-keeping duties at Lincoln Center occasionally tempt him into interpreting music at odds with his own sensibility. Ornette Coleman was overdue for a tribute, but when his turn finally arrived at Alice Tully Hall last month, there could have been a banner above Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra reading, “This is not our music.” The arrangements of Coleman classics from the early 1960s, most of them by Marsalis or saxophonist Ted Nash, tethered harmolodics to a metronome and a tuning fork. Coleman was in the audience, but audible in the music only whenever Herlin Riley resourcefully evoked Ed Blackwell’s tom-toms and on the few numbers where guest soloist Dewey Redman offered a bit of Ornette-like keening.
What makes Coleman all wrong for Marsalis is that his own music has no dark corners or slippery edges; how could it, given his dogmatic insistence that the essence of jazz is celebration? Fortunately, his reputation is unlikely to rest on misadventures like the Coleman tribute. You’ll have to visit Brooks Brothers to purchase the full-length promotional CD Plays the Music of Duke Ellington, but the repertoire alone makes the humiliation worth it—the focus is on underperformed Ellingtonia such as “Almost Cried,” from his score for Anatomy of a Murder, and “The Shepherd (Who Watches Over the Night Flock),” from his Second Sacred Concert. Marsalis solos only on two of the 13 tracks, even leaving growling honors to Ryan Kizor on “Concerto for Cootie.” But nobody else active today knows this material as intimately as Marsalis, and the band’s performances are infused with his spirit.
On The Magic Hour, his much anticipated first release for Blue Note, featuring just Marsalis and a rhythm section, plus cameos by singers Dianne Reeves (delightful) and Bobby McFerrin (humdrum), Marsalis reminds us of what all the fuss was about when we first heard him with Art Blakey in 1980. All the compositions are his, and some don’t amount to very much: The New Orleans-syncopated “Big Fat Hen” runs a choice Carlos Henriquez bass vamp into the ground, and the programmatic title track, which supposedly depicts children at play just before bedtime and their parents breathing a sigh of relief (and getting it on?) once they’re tucked in, is a little too Leroy Anderson (unless the shriller episodes are Marsalis’s idea of avant-garde). All of this hardly matters, because Marsalis’s solos dart with invention, and when he conjures Miles’s balladry on “Sophie Rose-Rosalee,” he does so briefly and knowingly, as if inviting us to measure how far he’s come. No new ground is broken here, even for Marsalis. But to reject on general aesthetic principle solos as wistful and vivacious as he turns in on “You and Me” or as deliciously salty as the one he uncorks alongside McFerrin on “Baby, I Love You”—well, that would be evidence of a mind as closed as Wynton’s often appears to be.