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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
AAJ: Enough business, then. Your new record is Meaning and Mystery. After a couple of other projects, this is your recorded return to the Dave Douglas Quintet—sort of your flagship brand. This is the first one from this group since Strange Liberation (RCA/Bluebird, 2004) and the first with just the quintet [Bill Frisell guested on Strange Liberation] since The Infinite (RCA/Bluebird, 2002). Before we talk about the actual tunes on this new record, let's just talk about this band generally. What is it that this band does? I mean, obviously it plays Dave Douglas songs, but what do you see as its specialty, if it has one?

DD: I've put a lot of thought into that, so it's hard to just give you a sound-bite answer. I've put a lot of thought into what the language of playing tunes coming out of jazz really is—what are the constituent parts and how do you move forward within that? Which is really a challenge. And so what we do is exactly what you said: we play my tunes [laughing]. That's very different from what I do in any other band that I lead. But I think there's something really challenging to me about exploring the boundaries of freedom with limitations. We do that in this band in a way that I think is kind of at the forefront of what people are doing with the language coming out of playing with forms and structures. And melodies, harmonies.

Dave DouglasI have to say that when Wayne Shorter started leading a small group again and I heard them, what they were doing—he's always been an inspiration for me, but I think that the way that they were doing it was so, I hate the word "revolutionary, but revolutionary! It was a way of taking the songs and then throwing out your assumptions about the way they're supposed to be played, and who's supposed to play what part, and what's supposed to happen when, and what does the idea of tempo, and key, and texture mean. And they shook it all up and poured it out on the table and it's this beautiful mosaic of all the constituent parts of the music—but without the glue of all of our assumptions about the way it's supposed to be. That inspired me, and I feel like we're going for something like that. At the same time, of course my tunes are very different than those tunes. Our references are different, I think. I have always felt like I'm not comfortable unless I'm uncomfortable.

AAJ: Good for you.

DD: Well, I just feel that we're not really doing anything if we're not questioning our own assumptions. That may sound very trite and sappy to say that, and okay, that's fine. But at the same time, once you question certain assumptions, then you get underneath that and there's a whole bunch of other things in there. Then you get behind that, and there's a whole bunch of other things. Like the earth is resting on a turtle and then what's under the turtle? Another turtle. Then the women says, "well, what's under that turtle? and the guy says, "you're not going to get me on that one! I know it's turtles all the way down!

So [laughing] I'm interested in peeling away all these layers of things, and I think a lot of times when people talk about that, about being free and about losing our preconceptions about what we're going to play, they're referring very specifically to harmony and melody and rhythm. Which are certainly the three main biggies in writing and playing music. But then, there are so many other things, and so many of them have to do with who we are, and where we grew up, and who we talk to, and what we eat, and what kind of a car we drive or don't drive, and whether we read the newspaper or not. And what kinds of elements of different musics we're willing to countenance in the examination of our own voice.

And I've found maybe that's the toughest one of all—to get away from thinking, "well, that over there is not okay. Everything is acceptable in my music except that. I don't want you to get the feeling that I'm sitting here saying this is what everyone has to do; if anything, what I'm trying to say is that the age of huge manifestos is over. We had manifestos in the 20th century and look where it got us! We're mired in a war in the Middle East still, and we still argue about what jazz is.

AAJ: Or what it isn't.

DD: And the argument about what jazz is—God, we should take pleasure in that because there's people dying over there on the other side of the world. And even here. But I'm just talking, for me, about what I've found. I guess in a lot of my projects I feel like I've addressed very specific issues about that, and chosen to be very focused from one album to the next on chewing on a particular piece of what I'm trying to break through to. And in the quintet, I feel like it's much more global and broad. And as I'm saying this to you, I realize that that's probably because my background was playing standards. It's the way I grew up—from the age of ten, eleven, I was learning tunes. So that's maybe my deepest, strongest suit: having learned forms and how to mess with them and play with them. So, now, to answer your question, that's what we do.

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