Trumpeter Dave Douglas, who’ll bring his quintet to Firehouse 12 in New Haven tomorrow night, knows how to celebrate a milestone birthday.
Douglas turned 50 in March, and he got it in his head to try and perform in each of the 50 states before his next birthday. (The project even has a hashtag: #DD50.) “For previous birthdays, I had done more of a New York-centric celebration,” Douglas said by phone from his Northern Westchester County home. “This year I decided, ‘What could I do that I’ve never done? There are so many states I have never played. Why not try to do this?’”
The running total is 15 states, but with a New England stretch arriving this weekend, Douglas will quickly knock off a few more. Many of the #DD50 gigs will feature his quintet -- bassist Chris Tordini, alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Rudy Royston -- while others pair Douglas with musicians he knows across the country, many of whom are entrenched at colleges and universities. And while he’s quick to admit he might not hit all 50 states before he turns 51 -- next month, he leaves the country, and the project, for a gig in Brazil with saxophonist Joe Lovano, with whom he co-leads a quintet -- Douglas vows to hit Hawaii during the winter months and Alaska in the summer. (That’s just good planning.)
“The whole concept is part of all of the things that I do,” Douglas said, “reaching out to regions I don’t normally play. The jazz world really should be more of a network... If there’s some small way I can participate in that, I do.”
Some musicians are content to play with one ensemble for long stretches of time, even decades, but Douglas isn’t one of them. His current quintet recently finished Time Travel (Greenleaf Music), an album of original, all-instrumental compositions that follows on the heels of their critically acclaimed 2012 recording Be Still. But if you scan his discography from about the mid-’90s on, you’ll see that Douglas has recorded in a dizzying number of configurations, sticking with a certain project for two, maybe three albums before moving on.
Part of that turnover, Douglas said, has to do with the economic push and pull of the music business. And as young players grow and develop, they naturally want to move on and either form their own bands or work with other leaders. But it also reflects Douglas’ need to collaborate. “I’m a member of the iPod generation and I like all kinds of music,” Douglas said. “The other side is I feel that I thrive in collaboration. I hear inspiring players and I want to work with them... It’s a guilty pleasure.” For Douglas, it’s about the personalities; working with different players allows him to get to know them all as people and musicians. But he’s careful not to create groups for one-off albums or gigs. “Old alliances fade,” he said. “But if you look at my body of work, you’ll see that each group has done more than one project.”
Time Travel, a set of modern jazz compositions penned by Douglas, acts as more of a companion piece to Be Still -- an album with vocals, based on hymns, folks songs and traditional music -- than a sophomore effort. “There’s a unity to [Time Travel] that was interesting for us as a band to consider,” he said. “For me, the composer, the emphasis was on presenting an idea that can be easily grasped, and also a strategy by which we can go somewhere else... I like to communicate to the audience. I used to just assume everyone would follow me wherever I went, but that’s not always the case.” As a composer, Douglas said he struggles to come up with ideas that are simple enough for an audience to grab onto, -- like scaffolding -- that also allow the players enough room for exploration. “That’s my goal, and I think this quintet in particular does that well,” he said.
The transitory nature of his ensembles also influences Douglas’ writing: knowing he won’t be with the same group of players forever, he composes what he thinks will last, rather than for a single set of people. “Everyone in the band is already super busy,” Douglas said, “so starting a new band, thinking ‘Great, I’ve got some folks who are going to be here awhile.’… But they are already leaving.”
As part of his New England run, Douglas will play a free gig at Greenleaf Hut, in Grafton, New Hampshire, a show that’s accessible only to those who are up for a moderate hike. “It’s a nice day trip, and it will get some people outside,” Douglas said. “I’ve always felt like it’s as close as you can get to the audience.” There are obvious advantages to playing on a mountain, he said. “You really are just playing out in a rock canyon and people are sitting wherever they can sit... There are a lot of people who would never go to a jazz club, and also a lot of people who would never consider going outside on a trail... As a trumpet player, projecting sound outside is a magical thing. At a concert hall, you are at the mercy of the acoustics of the room. Outside, you decide where the sound goes... It’s exhilarating and challenging.”
Dave Douglas Quintet, May 31, 8:30 and 10 p.m., $12-$18, Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven, (203) 785-0468, firehouse12.com.