It's hard to imagine Miles Davis or Bill Evans hiking up a mountain, playing a concert, then hiking back down the mountain.
God bless 'em, for all their musical genius, it's hard to imagine Miles or Bill hiking across a STREET.
Dave Douglas, however, is a different story. The musician, winner of about 20 Downbeat Critics Poll Best Trumpeter/Composer awards, has a refreshingly open view of jazz - not just as an art form, but also a lifestyle.
Which is why Douglas frequently leads his band on hikes to the site of a gig - up New Hampshire's Franconia Notch in the White Mountains in August, for example - where they then perform al fresco for delighted crowds in wonderful settings.
"Yeah, we do that stuff," Douglas says from his home in upstate New York. He's on the phone talking about a unique tour that brings the Dave Douglas Quintet to the Oasis Room in New London's Garde Arts Center on Thursday. "I have experience trail running and hiking, and playing in the mountains is just something I really love. Playing music in a setting like that is so beautiful and exhilarating. You're sharing the music not just with the other musicians and the audience, but on another level, as well."
The outdoor shows in natural settings are just part of Douglas' innovative approach to jazz performance. In honor of his 50th birthday this year, Douglas' current tour will take him and the quintet to all 50 states - a bit of routing sorcery that wasn't particularly easy to pull off. But there's far more to the idea than just a celebratory stunt.
"I want to go to parts of the country where jazz music is underrepresented and underappreciated," Douglas says. "I think the music business is self-serving. A big record label? There's a reason they don't want to send someone to Des Moines, Iowa. Part of the idea is to go out of our way to find interesting and creative places to play - and expose people to our music that maybe haven't had the exposure."
It's a visionary and even noble concept, and once Douglas and his booking folks started to configure the routing, something unexpected happened.
"It's really interesting," he says. "People got wind of the idea and started to call us. So the audiences are out there. It's just that we have to take the music to them. I hope we're creating pathways for the artists of the future."
Musically, Douglas is as adventurous as his approach to performance. While certainly possessed of a resume that explores the vocabulary of modern jazz and post-bop - both as a leader and a sideman - Douglas is relentlessly curious. He listens to all sorts of global musical styles and samples widely from the DNA of those forms and then mutates the whole thing into a Douglas-centric creative cornucopia.
Over time, his albums have melded jazz with classical, European and American folk music, and klezmer. He's also collaborated on projects involving dance, spoken-word artistry, film and literature.
"It's important to me not to be limited by where I'm from or what I like or assumptions I have made about music," Douglas says. "I like to learn broadly and I think that's what leads me as a musician and composer to look widely at culture. It's important to note that I've been very lucky to come across great and willing collaborators."
His last two records have been particularly notable. In 2012, Douglas released "Be Still," a collection centered around Protestant hymns. If that seems an unlikely source material, the album is an homage and elegy to his mother, who had passed away after a long illness.
Douglas explains, "The fact is that, at a certain point, I had to go to my mother and ask what music she would want played at her funeral service. She came back a week later with a complete list of these hymns that were important to her."
He arranged the hymns for the service and later decided to record them for his own new label, Greenleaf Music - which he created with like-minded professionals to embrace the new possibilities of jazz and the music business.
"We thought it was time to re-think how to present music," Douglas says. "I surrounded myself with a lot of bright, good people, and we think this is the new paradigm for record labels."
For purposes of "Be Still," Douglas wanted to replicate the lyrics and melodies of the hymns and reached out to Aoife O'Donovan, a young singer from the progressive-bluegrass band Crooked Still. It was a masterstroke. The album is gorgeous, melancholy - and completely life-affirming.
After much deliberation, Douglas decided to take the album on the road as an act of therapy with members of his new quintet: saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston.
"We all have mothers and fathers, and we all deal with universal feelings of loss and grief," Douglas says. "A lot of that emotion came through in the music I decided to record. Touring behind the album was a bit of a fight or flight reaction for me. Reaching out was a way to alleviate my own suffering, and playing the music live was important because it exposes something very powerful."
Earlier this year, the Douglas Quintet released "Time Travel," an instrumental album exploring the various mathematical concepts of time. Perhaps appropriately, Douglas regards the tour behind the record as both a way to look forward and backward - and points to the members of his group, all of whom are younger than him.
"If you want to play better, play with people who are better than you," he says. "A lot of the time onstage, I'm the worst musician in the band - and to that I say, 'Good. Bring it on.' It's a challenge. I find myself bringing them new songs, and they're ready to go at once - and I have to say, 'Well, wait a minute. I can't physically play it yet.'"