On March 13, he will perform "El Trilogy" with the New York-based Tricia Brown Dance Company at the University of Richmond's Modlin Center for the Arts. "It's a culmination of two years of work with Tricia Brown," Douglas says. "It is wonderful collaboration, a truly free relationship of music to dance. The dancers didn't need us to couch their movement, and vice-versa. One didn't have to illustrate the other. The possibilities are endless."
The performance, as the name suggests, is a trilogy, each part with its own feel.
"The first section is perhaps the least like jazz," Douglas says. The music is provided by the unconventional "Charms of the Night Sky" with Douglas (tumpet), Greg Cohen (bass), Mark Feldman (violin), Guy Klucevsek (accordion), and Susan Ibarra (percussion) one of several all-star ensembles led by Douglas. "We feel the music," he says, "and that's what it's all about."
The second section's lineup is more conventional, with trumpet, bass and drums, and the addition of young saxophone player Greg Tardy, "This is a special group of people." Douglas says. "The more we do it live, the more it grows."
The final section is a sextet, with all the musicians playing together.
When asked if the "El" in "El Trilogy" stood for the elevated train linking New York City neighborhoods or the golden calf god of the ancient Hebrews, Douglas is drolly amused. "It's all and none of those things," he says. "One writer made a pretty good case that `EL' meant evening length. Tricia came up with it, and she said it was because she had been hanging out in Europe with all these people that said `il' and `el' and `la.' It's a little mystery."
Each performance is unique, a blend of precision arrangements and total improvisation. "It's something you don't often see music and dance weaving in and out of each other in their most basic essence," Douglas says. "It's fresh and spontaneous, and surprises people a lot."
"There are moments where we interact with noises from the audience. Someone coughs and the band responds." The objective is to remove the separation between artist and observer. "A lot of people who come to a concert don't realize that they are part of the performance," Douglas says. "What happens on stage is 75 percent from the band and 25 percent not."
It is the kind of high-wire act long associated with the avant-garde, an alignment with which Douglas is comfortable. "Music and art have to speak to us where we live," Douglas says. "About survival issues, life and death."
At the same time, throughout his career, the trumpeter has been an advocate for overlooked artists within the mainstream jazz tradition, such as Mary Lou Williams and Booker Little. "There are a lot of people in this country's music that have been forgotten," he says. "It's important for younger musicians to be playing this music. Not only to give something back but also to make clear this music of ours comes from somewhere, it didn't just drop out of heaven like a bolt from the blue."
Rather than attempt to re-create the originals, Douglas believes it is more important to keep their creative spirit alive. He explores, combines, collides and reconciles the range of sources in his music. And it's all part of a conscious strategy to transcend categories. "Music is so broad that you can't represent the whole thing in one little box," he says. S
The Trisha Brown Dance Company with Dave Douglas Jazz Ensemble will perform "El Trilogy" March 13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Modlin Center for the Arts, University of Richmond. $16-$18. 289-8980.