Music News & Reviews

Walter Tunis: Jazzman makes a stop in Kentucky as part of 50 States Project

Dave Douglas will release a three-disc boxed set in October as part of his 50 States Project.
Dave Douglas will release a three-disc boxed set in October as part of his 50 States Project. Courtesy of Fully Altered Media

The Dave Douglas Quintet

7:30 p.m. Sept. 29 at the Clifton Center's Eifler Theatre, 2117 Payne St., Louisville. $18, $10 student. (502) 896-6950.

When Dave Douglas strikes up any of his many performance projects in a metropolis such as New York or San Francisco, a certain clientele that shares his sense of jazz exploration can usually be counted on to make up an audience.

After all, these are regions where world-class jazz has long thrived.

But what about Wyoming, Iowa or Oklahoma? What about, say, Kentucky?

As part of his 50 States Project, the heralded trumpeter, composer and bandleader — viewed critically as one of the country's leading voices in independent jazz — has vowed to take his music to every state. And in doing so, he has formed an industrious quartet of young protégés that already has released two albums and soon will figure prominently in a third.

So it stands to reason the reception Douglas will receive Sunday, when he makes his Kentucky debut at the Clifton Center in Louisville, will be different from those at comparatively familiar settings like the Monterey Jazz Festival in California, where he performed last week, or the Village Vanguard in New York.

"When we do go to places that are not hearing current sounds or where touring bands generally don't go, there is this enormous enthusiasm, excitement and passion," Douglas said. "That's why we play the music, after all. It's really exciting to feel that energy.

"With a lot of jazz, we're creating things in the moment. So the best feeling you can have is when the audience is discovering with you in the moment."

The 50 States Project culminates in October with the release of the three-disc boxed set DD/50. It includes the two previous records by his current quintet, 2012's Be Still and 2013's Time Travel. The new Pathways will complete the package.

All three albums were triggered by two intense occurrences in Douglas' life — the death of his mother in 2011 and his 50th birthday in 2012. Be Still, in particular, was built around hymns his mother requested to be played at her memorial service (she had battled ovarian cancer for three years). In giving the music a new voice, Douglas augmented a new group of young musicians that included bassist Linda Oh, a former Douglas student during his recently completed 10-year tenure as director of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada, with the decidedly nonjazz voice of Americana songstress Aoife O'Donovan.

"Through all of my projects," he said, "I try to bring in all sort of ideas to the music to make something that is new — that I can call my own, let's say. First of all, being given these hymns by my mom to play ... that was something I had never done before. I knew the hymns from church as a child, but to really bring them into my own practice as a musician was a challenge.

"I didn't just want to recite them from memory. I wanted to find my own way of doing it. I already had the new project kind of formulating, and I knew I was going to be playing these songs somehow. But it was when I met Aoife O'Donovan in January of 2012 that I knew I was going to do this record this way. The way she sang this stuff was so perfect.

"This was also the launch pad for this idea of connecting with the country. I tour a lot overseas. I've played in more countries that I've played in states. So I wanted to change that."


The 23 String Band at Crave Lexington, MoonDance at Midnight Pass amphitheater: Whatever fears that might have hit when the inaugural Crave Lexington opened its gates Saturday to gray skies and rain, they had to have been distant memories by the time the festival crested Sunday afternoon. For my money, a brilliant first day of autumn, a plate of chicken chimichangas and a concert-length set by 23 String Band makes any festival a winner.

The Louisville-based group — although its members hail from throughout Kentucky, with one evacuee from North Carolina — reflected the youthful gusto of new-generation pre-bluegrass country groups. Granted, when the band chose to serve the bluegrass straight, it did so beautifully. Such was the case with a regal reading of Bill Monroe's Kentucky Waltz. Mostly, though, bluegrass was a springboard for string sounds that incorporated classical, European swing, jazz, new grass, folk and, on occasion, pop.

Sometimes the genre-jumping was obvious, as in the head-first leap the band took from fellow Louisvillian Stephen Couch's East Kentucky Water into a hopped-up hoedown version of Tom Petty's Listen to Her Heart. Juxtaposing styles became more ingrained when the quintet turned to the staple Stewball, where string tradition was accented by call-and-response verses that sounded more like the product of a vintage chain-gang song.

But for all the stylistic standoffs that took place within 23 String Band's repertoire, the most dynamic musical offering was also the most progressive. On the instrumental title tune to the band's 2011 sophomore album Catch 23, the ensemble recalled the jazzlike dexterity and compositional depth that champion new grassers Béla Fleck and Mark O'Connor exhibited three decades ago. Violinist Scott Moore and mandolinist Dave Howard were in the driver's seat for much of the composition. But it was the ensemble dynamic that astounded most during a series of dramatic but unforced crescendos that often deflated so the tune's lighter lyricism could take flight. Then, in almost respiratory fashion, the tune built and climaxed again.

Put all of that under a sky of crystal blue with eats as far as the eyes could see, and you had a hearty welcome for fall.