For nearly two decades, saxophonist Joe Lovano and trumpeter Dave Douglas have been two of the leading figures in the contemporary jazz scene, and their career arcs are parallel. Both have built and maintained a mainstream following while frequently exploring the outer edges of jazz. Yet until recently, they have rarely played together. Mr. Douglas played on Mr. Lovano’s 2001 recording, “Flights of Fancy: Trio Fascination: Edition Two” and both men were briefly members of the SFJAZZ Collective in the late ’00s when that repertory group performed music by such jazz greats as the pianists Thelonious Monk and McCoy Tyner and the saxophonist Wayne Shorter.
Four years ago, Messrs. Douglas and Lovano formed a quintet called Sound Prints; the name is a variation on Mr. Shorter’s signature composition, “Footprints.” Unlike the SFJAZZ Collective, Sound Prints did original compositions, often inspired by those in Mr. Shorter’s vast catalog. For Mr. Douglas, who is 52 years old, this is familiar territory; “Stargazer” (Arabesque, 1997) took a similar approach to the saxophonist’s music. For Mr. Lovano, who is 62, Mr. Shorter’s complex yet accessible rhythms are a cornerstone influence in both his playing and his composing.
At age 81, Mr. Shorter is still making music and testing jazz’s boundaries. “Without a Net” (Blue Note, 2013) was widely hailed as one of that year’s best. When he toured in 2011, he invited Sound Prints to be the opening band. Before their gig at Town Hall in 2013, he gave them two compositions written for their band, and those two are at the center of “Sound Prints: Live at Monterey Jazz Festival,” recorded in Sept. 2013 and released last month by Blue Note Records. Sound Prints is touring the East Coast this week, with engagements at Washington’s Blues Alley on Tuesday and Wednesday, Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club on Thursday and New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center on Friday and Saturday.
The quintet’s configuration—trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums—recalls two of Mr. Shorter’s more storied associations, the edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers that featured both Mr. Shorter and trumpeter Lee Morgan from 1959 to 1961 and the edition of the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-’60s. Perhaps not coincidentally, Sound Prints not only has textures that recall the Davis ensemble’s, but ambitious, knotty horn lines like those that highlighted the Blakey band.
The music on “Sound Prints: Live at Monterey Jazz Festival” is diverse, abstract and yet highly accessible, though at only six tracks and 51 minutes it feels short for a live album. The recording opens with “Sound Prints,” a composition by Mr. Lovano that neatly catalogs many of the elements of Mr. Shorter’s music that the band deftly captures. There are quick-witted, concise solos by the co-leaders; urgent, changing rhythms by bassist Linda Oh; probing, elegant solos by pianist Lawrence Fields; and show-stopping, cantankerous percussion by drummer Joey Baron. By contrast, Mr. Douglas’s “Sprints” is an appropriately up-tempo number that Mr. Baron and Ms. Oh drive at a furious but confident pace.
The two pieces by Mr. Shorter, “Destination Unknown” and “To Sail Beyond the Sunset,” are strikingly dissimilar. The first rides a series of unusual rhythms as the leaders create scintillating and athletic solos. “Sunset” begins wistfully but builds impressively to a moment where all five musicians are playing distinctive yet complementary lines. At a mere 93 seconds and highlighted by a horn duet, Mr. Lovano’s “Weatherman” practically functions as a lead-in for Mr. Douglas’s “Power Ranger,” a midtempo piece that features propulsive rhythms and pithy solos.
Although short, the recording is impressive in several ways. For one, this ensemble doesn’t sound like a side project, though each of the members is involved in bands that occupy more of their time. There’s an ensemble unity throughout and a sense of spontaneity, even on the Shorter tunes. The tight, intuitive playing of the band liberates it from the mustiness that often accompanies tribute efforts—and that is so appropriate for Mr. Shorter’s music and spirit. He is always pushing toward new and innovative sounds for small-group jazz, and this band reflects those ambitions nicely.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.