Dave Douglas Quintet, 'Meaning and Mystery' (2006)

At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)

Dave Douglas, the staggeringly productive trumpeter and composer, has played a vital role in the jazz ecology of the last 25 years. There was never any doubt that he’d be a prominent figure in Playing Changes, not only for the quality and variety of his musical output but also for the dust-clouds of invective and conflict kicked up around him, much to his vexed bemusement.

The third chapter of the book, “Uptown Downtown,” is a chronicle of that era, with Douglas as a central character. He crops up first as a member of John Zorn’s Masada and Don Byron’s klezmer project, two loosely synchronous bands bursting out of the early-’90s Knitting Factory scene. (I first took note of Douglas via Don Byron Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, which I owned on cassette in 1992.)

The chapter goes on to trace Douglas’ emergence as a solo artist, on albums including Parallel Worlds, his debut, and In Our Lifetime, a breakthrough tribute to Booker Little. His Tiny Bell Trio, featuring Brad Shepik on guitar and Jim Black on drums, receives a fond remembrance; so too does his Sanctuary project, blending free-improv protocols with real-time electronics. And I propose that the Dave Douglas Quartet — with Chris Potter on tenor saxophone, James Genus on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums — was crucial to mainstreaming Douglas’ image, among a broader jazz populace:

By this point, most jazz listeners of a left-leaning disposition were already paying close attention to Douglas, compelled both by his proliferation of ideas and by the formal rigor with which he explored them. But it was something else to hear him in the context of a swinging acoustic quartet, going toe-to-toe with one of the most technically sound saxophonists in a centrist modern-jazz vein.


By 2001, the quartet had expanded to a quintet with the addition of Uri Caine, on acoustic and Fender Rhodes pianos (and Clarence Penn had replaced Perowsky on drums). I saw this band at The Village Vanguard, where it got a glowing review from Ben Ratliff, who pronounced that it “seemed both the most accessible of his bands for those with a rough understanding of the plot of jazz history and — surprise — the freest.”

Douglas has kept the quintet format in his steady rotation since then, and it’s an album by his Quintet 2.0, Meaning and Mystery, that I selected for the 129 Essential Albums list. This band featured the same rhythm section (Caine, Genus and Penn) but with a different tenor out front: Donny McCaslin, whose playing inhabits the same plane as Potter, with a bit more looseness and snap in his phrasing.

Meaning and Mystery is a terrific album, full of rhythmic drive and unmistakable group cohesion. (Its closing track is called “The Team,” which feels about right.) The Douglas-McCaslin hookup is a dream, and the tunes capture an essential flexibility and modernity in Douglas’ compositional style. Listen to the balance of humor and purpose in this track, whose title riffs on an iconic Ornette Coleman motto:

Meaning and Mystery was also a key early release on Douglas’ label, Greenleaf Music, which he’d started after a period on RCA Victor. When the quintet played an album-release engagement at the Jazz Standard, Douglas decided to go for broke: he recorded the entire run, and made each night’s sets available for download the following morning.

The whole corpus was eventually released as a boxed set, Live at the Jazz Standard, on 12 CDs. Comparisons with Miles Davis’ The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel are unavoidable, even welcome. Douglas later did much the same thing, in the same room, with a later iteration of his quintet, this one featuring a younger crew: saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Rudy Royston.

There’s so much more to say about Douglas — his role in establishing the Festival of New Trumpet Music is its own worthy story — but this is a blog post about an album recommendation, so I’ll end it here. Actually, one more note: several years ago I interviewed Douglas for a Q&A in JazzTimes, pegged to the 10th anniversary of Greenleaf Music. It’s a good read, for anyone thinking about the shifting ground of the marketplace, as well as the role that Douglas now fills as a mentor and advocate for younger talent.

Purchase Meaning and Mystery on Bandcamp, and peruse the Greenleaf Music store.