Hank Williams covers? Experimental dance music? Tom Waits collabos? Douglas does it!

IMAGE: Paul Natkin

[SPLENDOR IN THE BRASS] To call Dave Douglas the most important figure in jazz today might be an understatement. Still under 50, the New Jersey-born, New York-based trumpeter/composer is one of the most ambitious creators in all of contemporary music.

Emerging from Horace Silver's band in the late '80s and winning notice in collaborations with John Zorn and various experimental dance and theater projects, Douglas won early critical acclaim for his trumpet virtuosity, but chops and jazz itself were only the starting point. Seamlessly assimilating free jazz, Indian, klezmer and other influences, Douglas forged productive collaborations with visionary musicians such as Bill Frisell, Don Byron, Tom Waits, Chris Potter, Uri Caine and more.

Over the past two decades, Douglas embarked on a dizzying succession of varied, often dazzling projects—from the Balkan music-inspired Tiny Bell Trio to a string group that included cellist Erik Friedlander—plus many other ensembles acoustic, electric and electronic. Avoiding standard jazz combo instrumentation, he's also written for string sextets and chamber quintet big bands and composed new soundtracks for old films.

Ever seeking new inspiration, Douglas keeps his antennae tuned to new sounds from the jazz, pop and contemporary classical worlds. Yet none of his music feels dilettantish. "Maybe one of the biggest myths of my career is that I get up and think of some crazy new thing and just do it," Douglas says. Instead, he seeks out musicians appropriate to a particular project and then works collaboratively with them to develop the music—a process more jazzlike than that of the typical postclassical composer.

Douglas' Brass Ecstasy project, which he'll bring to this year's Portland Jazz Festival, uses new techniques and old New Orleans brass band moves to create colorful sounds and fascinating textures, but it's all eminently accessible. "It's important to continue to honor our ancestors," Douglas says, and this time the honoree is the Hall of Fame trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941-1999) and his landmark Brass Fantasy band.

But like previous celebrations of icons such as Wayne Shorter and Booker Little, BE is no mere cover tribute. "The legacy of Lester Bowie is deep, and I didn't want to do something light and not add my own spin to it," Douglas says. Along with his original compositions, the collective's fun-loving Spirit Moves album covers Rufus Wainwright, Otis Redding and Hank Williams.

"Sometimes you get some ideas a little further afield, and sometimes you get some that connect with a greater number of people," Douglas explains. Though deeply influenced by thorny modernist composers like Charles Wuorinen, "when I do something that may seems a little off the beaten path, I do it with the intention of trying to connect," he says.

Douglas, who somehow finds time to teach in various settings, says that his students—like Douglas himself—have moved beyond the ideological wars that plagued post-World War II music. "This whole jazz/not jazz thing is a 20th-century problem," he insists. "In the younger generation I don't see that tension at all. It's not even part of the equation."

SEE IT: Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy play the Crystal Ballroom on Sunday, Feb. 28, at 7:30 pm. $25-$40. All ages.