Trumpeter/composer/bandleader Dave Douglas has managed what few other jazz artists have; to be associated with and widely promoted by a major record company, creating a diverse body of work that is completely without compromise, at a time when most are looking for the next Diana Krall or Norah Jones. In the past five years Douglas has released seven albums that range from A Thousand Evenings , with his Charms of the Night Sky band, to the denser large-ensemble work, Witness. His latest release, Strange Liberation, reunites the quintet that produced '02's The Infinite, adding Bill Frisell to the mix to take things in a different direction.
While critics attempt to categorize Douglas' work as ranging from the Eastern European folk-informed Tiny Bell Trio to electronica with his Freak In project, Douglas steadfastly avoids the use of labels. "I am really wary of genre names," says Douglas. "I feel like when we get into saying, for example, that there's more blues on Strange Liberation we get on a really slippery slope to defining what the blues is and then taking it further and saying, "OK, is this more black or white?" And that's what we've been fighting against doing to people for hundreds of years, so I just don't feel like we should be doing that to music."
Douglas' name is synonymous with musical diversity and unusual instrumental contexts; in addition, he works almost exclusively with small ensembles. "I like music," Douglas explains, "where you get to hear everyone's personality, so that's why most of my groups are kept pretty small; because I feel like when there are too many people everyone has to rein it in a lot more to have things make sense.
"I try to come up with new sounds," Douglas continues, "to try to escape the traps of standard, for lack of a better word, jazz instrumentation. With The Tiny Bell Trio Brad Shepik is the kind of guitarist who can cover bass parts, chord parts and melodies all at once and it forced me, as a trumpet player, to think differently; to gravitate, for example, towards playing bass lines. And I think it really opened things up for Jim Black too, especially in the area of the bass drum, supporting the sound of the band in a way that he wouldn't have to if there were a bassist, an organ player or some other low instrument. I like those kinds of challenges."
Sometimes a single musician or a single instrument can motivate Douglas to put together a new project. "With the Charms of the Night Sky band," Douglas says, "Guy Klucevsek was the whole reason I started the thing in the first place, hearing him at a solo show. I had played quite a bit, some years before that, with an accordion player and then drifted out of it; hearing Guy just opened my mind to what was possible. Violinist Mark Feldman and I already had a history of playing together and writing for each other; and meeting bassist Greg Cohen in Masada was the step that made me feel like I could do the whole thing, because he's such a solid player, having played singer/songwriter music, pop music, Dixieland, Avant-Garde and modern jazz. Everyone in the group had a lot of responsibility, with there being no drummer; it forced all of us to think as rhythm section players as we were playing melodies and chord parts. And Greg was somebody who could understand the different roles that were required and be himself within all of them."
Douglas' first released project as a leader was his revolutionary string group, with Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Mark Dresser (later Drew Gress) and drummer Michael Sarin. Friedlander's inclusion was, as it turns out, a happy accident, when he was called in to substitute for the trombonist at their first gig. "It was going to be trumpet, trombone, violin, bass and drums," describes Douglas. "But after the first gig with Erik, listening to the tapes, I realized it was a string group; but it wouldn't have worked unless Erik, Mark Feldman and Mark Dresser were superb improvisers; it wasn't about, 'OK, let me get a cello and a violin,' it was really about, for lack of a better word, a jazz approach."
With the cream of the New York musical crop at his disposal, Douglas has specific criteria in choosing musicians for his projects. "Musical personalities, of course," explains Douglas. "But I think it also comes down to what kinds of challenges I want to get at with the music I'm writing, and then how much each person will be able to rise to the challenge or present new challenges. How much are they going to be open to doing something they never did before? How hard is it going to be for them to do that? And then how much fun are we going to have doing it? If it's just going to be a drag and it's going to be really hard for somebody, I wouldn't try to put anyone through that.