The quick-changing sonic face of trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas has long confused some listeners, who have wondered if there was a core identity centering his wide range of projects and interests. Such questions have always seemed unfairly to expect centeredness from artists, when some of the most memorable improviser/composers of the last half-century have ranged widely across idioms and styles. So, with the follow-up from the recent Be Still, Douglas’s recent quintet simply investigates one aspect of his personality: his long-standing interest in “modernist” small-group jazz (an idiom/format he loves and for which he has ace instincts).
With saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh, and drummer Rudy Royston, on Time Travel Douglas conjures a music that’s subtle but emphatic for the most part. The spacious, smoldering opener “Bridge to Nowhere” — where Mitchell’s seemingly Paul Bley-influenced playing compels like mad — embodies these musical virtues. Boiling slowly until its rapturous conclusion, the piece also evinces the mutuality of the quintet’s process, where fluid, responsive interaction is as important as dealing out solos (though there are plenty of fine ones on this record, no doubt). Hear that interaction marvelously displayed on the multi-layered, polyrhythmic “Time Travel,” with skittering percussive undergrowth and tart horn harmony. As a composer, Douglas is a deft hand, paying scrupulous attention to harmony and rhythm while still allowing for maximum improvisational freedom (and of course, as always, it’s simply a joy to listen to Douglas play, with some of his best work coming as Royston eggs him on). The laconic, pinwheeling “Law of Historical Memory” is shot through with a sense of urgency and expectancy that’s realized and enhanced with some beautiful work from Mitchell. And “Little Feet” is hazy and shimmering, hinting at, but not plumbing, greater harmonic depths.
At times, there’s a notable sass to Douglas’ tunes, as with the brisk, buoyant “Beware of Doug,” which could almost be a Cannonball Adderley tune infused with the spirit of the Willem Breuker Kollektief). But the group’s finest moments are on the more urgent and intense pieces. The circuitous “Garden State” has plenty of heat and brightness, and at times it’s fairly pounding. And the most expansive piece is the concluding “The Pigeon and the Pie.” It’s loaded with color, mood, and harmonic shade, but really lives in the players’ subtle inflections of line and timbre. Mitchell, Oh and Royston spool out a continual statement, it seems. And as the searching horns play off one another, the band sounds like it’s reached some infinite pulse that’s like the proverbial changing same.