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Dave Douglas: Music, Commerce and Culture Wars

By Published: June 26, 2006
AAJ: Donny McCaslin's the new saxophonist in the band. That's a very obvious change.

DD: People who know this group know that Chris Potter was with the band for the first five years, and Chris is, deservedly so, really busy as a leader. I'm sure you've heard his record and he's been out there on the road, and he still tries to do the tours with Dave Holland. It just got to the point where I was using subs so much of the time that it just didn't make sense anymore. So I think that people who hear this record and who come to hear the band live will realize that Donny is more than an adequate replacement for Chris Potter. He's just one of the most astounding musicians that I've every heard.

AAJ: Besides that change that anyone can look at and say, "oh, look, a new member —do you think this band has changed?

DD: Well, yes and no. This tour has been really interesting because we now have a book going back a ways and we now have, I guess, 40 tunes that we can play and they're all different shapes and sizes and different concepts and strategies and approaches. We're able, night to night, to completely change the set. So we do go back and play the songs that I wrote in 2000 when I started the band, but they just sound really different now. So I think that we've changed, but that's more of a reflection of the way that we play and the different experiences we've had.

Every day while we're traveling, [Fender Rhodes player] Uri Caine is writing, finishing this piece, a double concerto for two pianos and orchestra that he's premiering next month. So that brings a certain quality to the stage, not just from him but from everybody, because it's such a wonderful, exciting thing to have happening. [Bassist] James [Genus], as you know, is in the Saturday Night Live band now; he has been for a couple of years. So he plays with these names—these people where you just can't believe it. And I think that's wonderful. There's been such a broadening of the way he's playing and his language—it's somehow deeper.

And I think that [drummer] Clarence [Penn] is the kind of musician who is always kind of tinkering with something, always learning something, and sometimes I get glimpses of what it is at the sound check. Then I'll try to play something that would trigger that on the gig. If I hear him working on a Brazilian pandeira rhythm, when we get on the gig I'll play something from that vibe and see if I can get him to do it. Of course, like any great musician, sometimes he will and sometimes he won't. But that kind of conversation is, I think, enriched by all the other things that we do.

AAJ: Meaning and Mystery may not have as explicit a concept as Keystone or Mountain Passages, your last two albums, but it is, to some extent, devoted to paying homage to various perhaps unsung—or under-sung, if that's a word, musical pioneers and combinations. This would include people like Tim Berne, Anthony Braxton and Kenny Wheeler, Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw. I called it an "enough about Miles template in a review.

DD: [Laughing] I like that, but I think—you know, you don't really go around Miles. But I do think that maybe the theme is the language of contemporary jazz. And blowing that out. You know, words, words, words—they get used all over the place. To some people, you say "contemporary jazz and that means smooth jazz. To some people it means the forties or the fifties. I try to use the word "contemporary in the sense that it's happening now.

I look around on the scene and I hear what Jason Moran is doing and what Wayne Shorter is doing, and the Bad Plus, Roy Haynes, Anthony Braxton, Butch Morris, Kneebody, Jonathan Finlayson, Cuong Vu, ICP from the Netherlands, William Parker, Henry Grimes, Henry Threadgill. I hate making lists because you always leave someone out and then somebody will say, "oh, I can't believe he left out blah-blah-blah. But it's just this incredibly rich moment in the music and so I feel like, if anything, we're part of that. That's the theme.

AAJ: "Painter's Way is the first song on the record. It was called "Song for Susannah on my prerelease copy, and you do quote "Oh Susannah in your opening trumpet part. This is built around that Americana theme and that descending vamp that threads throughout the piece. James is quite prominent on this one and sounds like a man happy to be alive, and I especially like Donny's counterpart tenor to your trumpet. I find this song to be a very unassuming and beatific way to begin the CD. Any thoughts on this song?

DD: Well, it's a song that I wrote for my wife, whose name is Suzannah. But her middle name is Painter, and she's a photographer and a dancer. Mainly a dancer, but she does a lot of visual things, and it just reminded me of her before I realized that there was the tune "Oh Susannah built into it. I don't know how that happened. I struggled with how to start the record, but this one seemed like the one that was the most about the whole band. It's very much an ensemble piece, and I think it's interesting to try to do stuff with a band like this, with such great soloists, that's not about all about soloists. And I think that it's a very visual kind of tune.

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