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A real charmer

Dave Douglas lights up Charms of the Night Sky

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Last year was a landmark for free music in many ways. As always, genres continued to meld and players continued to reach, but something more extraordinary happened along the way: Players began to receive the appreciation and recognition they have always deserved. For decades, free jazz improvisors have remained marginal, shunned by mainstream critics and listeners alike. Countless innovators have passed away without ever receiving due credit. But in 2000, jazz's biggest honor, Downbeat Magazine's International Critics Pick for jazz artist of the year, was bestowed upon adventurous trumpeter/ composer Dave Douglas.

Douglas views his recognition with the humble optimism of an artist still focused on the art. "It feels great to win these mainstream awards," Douglas says. "It means my music is getting heard. Hopefully other, more experimental artists will benefit from this broadening of attention."

Downbeat's distinctive choice also suggests that as the listening public accepts freer forms of jazz, the need to label it disappears. "Listeners no longer tend to have narrow, pigeonholed tastes," Douglas says, "so the categories that musicians have always tried to escape are becoming more and more meaningless. I think you see that shift in all genres of music at this point. What you're getting is unique and personal-sounding music that hasn't been heard before. Jazz is alive and well. It is being continually innovated and remade fresh by musicians everywhere."

Although the name Dave Douglas may be new to more straight-ahead jazz listeners, his presence in music is not. Douglas has performed and recorded for 15 years, complementing and collaborating with such players as Horace Silver, Anthony Braxton and Don Byron. He spent time honing his unique voice in "avantsembles" such as Dr. Nerve and has an ongoing stint in John Zorn's Masada. It wasn't until 1992, however, that Douglas had a chance to fully explore his own interests in a wide variety of musical genres. His first outlet as a composer, the group Parallel Worlds, focused on string orchestrations in film soundtracks, theatrical accompaniments and concert music.

Once Douglas got the compositional ball rolling, the momentum found him involved in as many as eight different musical configurations at any given time. The repertoire of his Tiny Bell Trio is mostly traditional Eastern European folk music, whereas his hard-boppin' Dave Douglas Sextet pays tribute to such legendary jazz composers as Booker Little, Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams. The group's recent recording, Soul on Soul, was also recognized by Downbeat as 2000's jazz album of the year. Proving himself the current King Midas of jazz, Douglas continues filling his plate and breaking borders with his free jazz double-quartet Sanctuary and his Hindi-influenced Satya, featuring trumpet, tablas, harmonium and tamboura.

Perhaps Douglas' most awe-inspiring achievement, however, is his Charms of the Night Sky quartet, which he brings to the Red Light Café this week. Along with accordionist Guy Klucevsek, violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Greg Cohen, Douglas creates a wonderfully diverse sound that surpasses any hint of novelty. While the group's self-titled debut was named Jazzman magazine's record of the year in 1998, the new recording, A Thousand Evenings, is even better. It opens up with a beautiful piece in which Douglas' silky trumpet resembles that of Miles Davis. From there, Douglas and company seamlessly blend a thousand genres -- from Bond-theme drama of John Barry's "Goldfinger" to the Mexican-flavored "On Our Way Home" to moments of tango bliss complete with visions of Astor Piazzolla effortlessly squeezing sentiment from his bandoneon.

Throughout the CD, Charms members harmonize wonderfully, Feldman and Douglas in particular, with Cohen turning in some wonderful bass strumming and everyone following each other's notes as if they were quadruplets finishing each other's sentences. For Douglas, though, playing with Charms members transcends musical virtuosity.

"I like working with people who have developed their own distinctive sound," he says. "So I'm attracted to players that have a point of view, whether as improvisers or interpreters. The personalities are often more important to me than the actual instruments. Charms of the Night Sky is special for me not only because each of these players is so brilliant. We also each have a very different way of approaching improvising. It makes for some really surprising and wonderful moments."

And these moments are what make Charms of the Night Sky so appealing to hear -- moments of musicianship so radiant they light up the night sky.

Dave Douglas' Charms of the Night Sky play the Red Light Café, Mon., Jan. 29, at 8 p.m. Ticket are $20. For more information, call 404-524-7354.

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