In music as in film, the term "experimental" has always seemed somewhat inadequately used. It's narrowly cast in the realm of abstraction and nonlinearity; so that any amelodic improvisation or non-narrative imagery scores the label regardless of whether any new ground is broken, while endeavors that discover new interpretations of traditional forms go without. Scientists realize that experiments build on old knowledge far more than they explode the past, and the same applies to Dave Douglas.
That's especially the case with the trumpeter's regular quintet, featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Uri Caine, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn, which he brings to town this weekend (with latter-day Miles sideman Deron Johnson sitting in for Caine and Herbie Hancock's regular bassist Scott Colley subbing for Genus). Douglas' latest quintet record, Meaning and Mystery, released last year on his own Greenleaf Music label, comes after a string of more conceptual projects: Keystone, an electric sextet that recorded Douglas' new scores for silent Fatty Arbuckle shorts, and Nomad, a quintet featuring cello and tuba formed to play music meant to be played in the mountains.
Still, the quintet's lack of a concept is, in itself, a concept. "All the quintet records are much more about writing tunes that come out of standards and standard jazz composers, which is really different than most of my other stuff," explains Douglas. "The way the quintet book differs is that these are songs that hopefully anyone who studied jazz or who likes to play jazz could play. Whereas with Keystone and with Nomad and with other groups, it's more crafted to those individual players and to a more composerly aesthetic."
As "standard" as Douglas may want to think about the quintet's music, its every release is a surprising and inventive reimagining of the jazz idiom. He may not invent new language, but he twists the old into consistently fresh contexts.
Beyond his composing, Douglas has recently also begun exploring the possibilities provided by the Internet for artist-directed releasing and distribution. He launched Greenleaf in 2005 and now blogs regularly at the label's Web site.
Douglas sees the new mantle of label head as just an extension of his artistic voice. "I've always felt like it was important for me to try to make a complete statement with each release," he says. "And to me, the whole philosophy behind the way the music is presented is so much a part of how it's perceived, and how an artwork is perceived is part of what it is."
Continuing to tinker with his innovative approach to distribution, Douglas just last month made the quintet's weeklong, two-shows-a-night stint at the Jazz Standard in New York available for download within 24 hours of each night's performance. The experience, he says, was exhausting but exhilarating.
"The stuff came out really well," Douglas says. "Everyone played well, and we're still alive. I didn't realize going in how much pressure that puts on everyone involved, everyone at the label, the engineers, the band, me. We played 45 different songs, so none of the sets were the same, and there wasn't that much repetition in terms of the songs themselves. And every note that we played was going to be released, so it was pretty hair-raising. But I feel like that's the way that music should be."
That pressure and spontaneity, Douglas continues, in a way marries two ends of the jazz spectrum that had become divided. For the likes of Charlie Parker, he says, music "was very much a live art form and the recording was just a capture of what they did on the stage," but that model has been altered over the past few years.
The Jazz Standard project is "a very raw representation of what we do that the standard distribution model just wouldn't permit," Douglas says. "You get a chance to make one CD every 18 months and it kind of gets refined and refined. Everyone wonders why the music on the studio releases sounds so different than the live releases, and that's why: You have 18 months to say one hour's worth of music. This is definitely a different approach, and there's plenty of mistakes on there and, in a way, I'm OK with that."
Dave Douglas Quintet plays Fri.-Sat., Jan. 26-27, 7:45 and 10 p.m., $35, Zanzibar Blue, Broad and Walnut sts., 215-732-4500, www.zanzibarblue.com.