When Dave Douglas first stepped out with his own recording and performing projects in the early to mid-'90s, the Brooklyn-based trumpeter/composer/bandleader immediately demonstrated his mastery of Parallel Worlds in music. He formed the Balkan-influenced Tiny Bell Trio with drummer Jim Black and guitarist Brad Shepik (who used the surname Schoeppach at the time) and a somewhat more conventional -- in typical jazz ensemble instrumentation anyway -- although still extraordinary sextet, premiering the former with an eponymous 1994 album on Songlines and the latter with the New World album In Our Lifetime (featuring nine compositions by Douglas and three by Booker Little) the following year. But Douglas' 1993 debut album on the Italian Soul Note label, with the aforementioned title Parallel Worlds, was recorded with yet another ensemble, his String Group -- and with this record and band Douglas immediately garnered attention among creative jazz aficionados as a new talent to watch.
Third stream giant Gunther Schuller enthusiastically opened his liner notes for the album with "Parallel Worlds indeed!," and went on to enumerate all the various threads in the music contained therein, referencing the deft melding of improvisation with composition, tonality with atonality, jazz with modern classical forms. And to realize this musical vision, Douglas had assembled a first-rate ensemble (indeed!), featuring violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Mark Dresser (Anthony Braxton Quartet), and drummer Michael Sarin (Thomas Chapin Trio), all of whom would go on to become notable contributors to the so-called New York downtown scene in the years to come. With the approach and skill of a seasoned jazz bandleader despite this album being the debut recording under his own name, Douglas wrote explicitly for this lineup, intertwining the musicians' unique voices in the group's textures during both improvised and composed sections -- this was far from a jazz group "plus strings" in the sense of string accompanists relegated to traditional background roles. Douglas composed most of the material for Parallel Worlds, but the composers he chose to cover on the album -- Webern, Weill, Ellington, Stravinsky -- further demonstrated the trumpeter's intention to draw influence from and find commonality among some of modern music's most revered groundbreakers.
Into the mid-'90s, Douglas became busier and busier as both sideman and leader; his first appearance as a member of John Zorn's Masada, Masada, Vol. 1: Alef, was released by DIW in 1994 and a second Tiny Bell Trio album, Constellations, was issued by Hatology the following year -- so given these and other performing/recording commitments, the String Group's second album, also on Soul Note, didn't arrive until 1996. With four albums -- two by Tiny Bell Trio, one by the sextet, and one by the String Group -- under Douglas' belt, the album was given the simple title Five. Douglas penned all the compositions, which were given dedications to Steve Lacy, Wayne Shorter, Mark Dresser, Woody Shaw, John Cage, and John Zorn. As for bassist Dresser, he had departed the group, and was replaced on Five by another strong contributor to the New York creative jazz scene, Drew Gress.
Issued in 1999, the Dave Douglas String Group's third and final Soul Note album, Convergence, equaled -- and even arguably surpassed -- the scope and quality of the group's previous two '90s releases, and included arrangements of Weill, Messiaen, Bob Dorough, and traditional Burmese music; a remembrance of Tony Williams; and dedications to victims of violence in Mexico and the Middle East (in this case, the First Gulf War). But the third String Group album was actually Dave Douglas' 12th as a leader -- in the interim, the trumpeter had recorded another Tiny Bell Trio album, Live in Europe, and sextet album, Stargazer (dedicated to Wayne Shorter), both released by Arabesque in 1997, and embarked on other projects including that year's Sanctuary octet album (Avant) and two releases in 1998, the Joni Mitchell-dedicated Moving Portrait (DIW) and the debut release (on Winter & Winter) by yet another band, Douglas' Charms of the Night Sky quartet, which included the String Group's violinist Feldman.
By now, Douglas had won the 1998 Down Beat Critics Poll for both Jazz Artist of the Year and Talent Deserving Wider Recognition (an interesting pairing), and was poised to explode into the wider jazz world big-time. He garnered a major-label contract with RCA, which released Soul on Soul, by the Douglas sextet and dedicated to pianist Mary Lou Williams, in 2000; the album won the Down Beat poll for Jazz Album of the Year. As a recording project, the String Group was now a thing of the past (as was, for that matter, Tiny Bell Trio), but the trumpeter would lead innumerable acclaimed projects in the years ahead, with seven albums for RCA through to the mid-2000s and many more on his own Greenleaf Music label thereafter. In 2012 Black Saint/Soul Note issued the six-CD box set The Complete Remastered Recordings on Black Saint & Soul Note, which included Parallel Worlds, Five, and Convergence. Given Douglas' visibility and status in the jazz world, the affiliated Italian labels also looked back into the vaults to find three additional '90s CDs -- Mark Dresser's Force Green (1994), Rova's adaptation of John Coltrane's Ascension (1995), and John Lindberg's Bounce (1998) -- on which the trumpeter served as sideman, and opted to include these discs in the package. They are all fine albums by the leaders and their collaborators, and wonderful showcases for Douglas' trumpet playing during this era -- although, strictly speaking, Douglas only recorded three albums of his own for Soul Note back then: the three utterly unique CDs by the Dave Douglas String Group.