BURLINGTON--Some people describe trumpeter Dave Douglas' music as "out." (Those who aren't jazz musicians and aren't familiar with that usage of the word might call it "avant-garde.") And I noted long ago in these pages that the older I get, the "outer" I like, but tonight's concert by Douglas and his quintet at the intimate basement venue known as the FlynnSpace was not only far from "out" to these ears, but it was some of the most engaging music I've heard for this entire long weekend.
Douglas has long been known for his prolific output (and his music now has a ready home, since he started running his own record label a while back) For a while, this music was spread over a rather large number of bands, but lately, he's been concentrating on his quintet, consisting of Matt Mitchell (piano), Jon Irabagon (tenor sax), Linda Oh (bass, with Chris Tordini subbing for her tonight) and Rudy Royston (drums). This group recorded two distinct albums in two days during April of last year: Be Still, a reimagination of traditional hymns and folk songs (with special guest vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, who didn't appear tonight), and Time Travel, an all-instrumental set of contemporary acoustic tunes. These two albums provided the material for tonight's show.
Having been familiar with Douglas' music since a friend turned me onto him about seven years ago, there certainly were familiar elements to be heard. For all this talk of "out," a typical Douglas melody is fairly, well, melodic--even if the notes sometimes take interesting turns or land in unexpected places relative to the chords. The solo work--mostly by Douglas, Irabagon and Mitchell, was both virtuosic and heartfelt, and the mood was appropriately playful or reverent, depending on whether the Time Travel or Be Still music was being played at the moment. Tordini, while not a regular member of the group, provided a solid foundation for things and added a couple of enjoyable, energetic solos, and Royston was full of energy for the entire show.
To this sax player's ears, the really big "find" of the evening was saxophonist Arabagon. Given that the tenor chair in previous Douglas groups has been held by such luminaries as Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin, it's a given that Irabagon is no slouch, and the onetime Chicagoan indeed boasts an impressive resume. He provides not only tasty licks, dazzling technique and clever use of harmonics, but also a warm, enjoyable sound and a definite sense of fun--all of which make him a perfect foil for Douglas. This is definitely someone to watch in the future.
Despite this being my fifth trip to the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, tonight was my first time to ever see a concert in the smaller FlynnSpace (though I'd seen many of the "Meet the Artist" sessions there, including one with Douglas this afternoon). While I'd like to think he could have drawn well upstairs in the main theatre, it was great to see Douglas and company up close and personal in this club-like setting. The sound was great, and it was easy to see, despite being in the back section of chairs (Note to self: show up more than fifteen minutes early for any future shows here).
So, there's still that question of how "out" this all is, and I believe (as I said in the earlier post linked above, and paraphrasing Dewey Redman) that outness is in the ear of the behearer. To me, the only thing even remotely avant-garde about tonight might have been when Douglas and Irabagon engaged in some collective soloing, but the interplay fit so well together that I didn't even bat an eye (or an ear). And while some of the people who were with us tonight thought it was a little too out for their tastes...well, I might not have liked it at age 19 either. To those folks I would say this: Keep studying the music, and your ears might open up to this a little more. From my standpoint, it was one of the emotional highlights of the four days of headliner concerts here so far: Beautiful writing and beautiful musicianship. I can't wait to see this group again.
Another voice: Once again, I invite you to read another take on this concert, by Brent Hallenbeck of the Burlington Free Press. We may occasionally say similar things, but I never read his take before posting mine.