A Fireside Chat With Dave Douglas (2003)
“ ...there is also a risk to that. That you are going to lose people. For me, it is really an experiment every time and a true experiment means that you risk failure. ”
Not so long ago, Dave Douglas was touted as the crowned prince of improvised music. Sadly, this music is nothing if not tragically parallel to life and the irony of life is the same persons who lauded you are the ones to tear you down. But if you like the improvised music straight with no chaser, it doesn't get much better than Douglas, unedited and in his own words.
All About Jazz: Happy birthday.
Dave Douglas: Thank you. We'll be out here a couple of weeks and we get back just in time for my birthday.
AAJ: You have been involved with ten plus projects in the past handful of years: the Dave Douglas Septet, the Dave Douglas Sextet, the Dave Douglas Quintet, the Dave Douglas Quartet, the Tiny Bell Trio, a large ensemble, the Charms of the Night Sky group, a double quartet, the Trisha Brown Dance Company group, various duo projects, and I am probably missing more than a few. Are these projects different facets of your musical personality?
DD: I don't really think of these as projects. I think of them as bands. I have tried to not just convene a group of musicians and make one record or make one gig and just drop it. Each of them develop over time. I have been really fortunate to keep a band like the Sextet together over three very different albums. Each time, the goal got more deep for me in terms of how I wanted to write for those people. So it is really about trying to develop ideas and trying to have a consistent focus on a way to come up with new ideas in music that I want to do. I guess I would have to admit that I work hard (laughing), but I also love my job. I love my work. I am working with my friends, so I think that is what helps me keep it together, the fact that I can get up everyday and work on some new music with friends and try to challenge myself and make some good music. I think that is confusing for a lot of people because folks may get attracted to one or another of the different things that I have thrown out there and then feel like the next record comes out and it is a stab in the back to them. For people who thought that I was an acoustic player and doing all these contemporary things with strings and then they hear Freak In and it is kind of like, 'Oh, my God,' but that is not how I see it. I feel like all of these different projects are in a continuum of the music that I would like to make and I would hope that if someone listened to all these different things back to back, they would see a through line of the way that I like to work with harmony and with rhythm and melody, the way each project is a different approach to setting up players for improvisation.
AAJ: Tough work if you can get it in a time when everything is neatly packaged for consumption by the masses.
DD: Yeah, I don't see my audience that way. I know what you are talking about, Fred. I think you are right on in terms of what is happening in the mass marketed music. But I don't feel that jazz or creative music or improvised music or world music, it doesn't fall into that context.
AAJ: Your music is advanced citizenship. It doesn't come with connect the dot IKEA instructions.
DD: If I worried about that, I wouldn't have made a single record in my whole career. I think more and more, audiences appreciate something that is distinctive and different. Everyone always throws out this figure, 'Jazz is now down to three percent of the total record sales.' So does that mean it is not important? I think if we agree that human culture itself is important, then I think those three percent take on a greater significance.
AAJ: The Infinite drew numerous critical comparisons to Miles and I am certain Freak In will get its share of Big Fun and On the Corner references (something I am guilty of as well).
DD: Fred, I love those records, don't get me wrong, Live-Evil and Tutu, those are some of my favorite records, and records from the Eighties. But I honestly don't feel that if someone put on those records back to back, they would be able to say that it is just a copy or that it is just the same thing. 'He is just regurgitating the music of Miles.' I honestly don't feel that that's what I'm doing. If people on a superficial level put the records on a feel that, I don't know what I can do about that. I honestly wouldn't do it if I thought that was what I was doing.
AAJ: This isn't the first time you have been abroad during tenuous times. During the Bosnia and Herzegovina conflict, you toured through Europe.
DD: These days just living in New York is stress enough. I feel like the city of New York is the frontline of George Bush's war on terrorism and that when everyone went out and bought their duct tape and clear plastic, the feeling of fear was palpable. I just feel like it doesn't make sense to stop what you're doing. What am I going to do, buy an apartment in a basement somewhere and just stay there? I feel like everyone's time comes when it comes and I am doing what I love to do and I am ready if that happens. I am out with this band that I call the Septet because there's seven musicians and we are playing all the music from this brand new album. It is really exciting because as you know, Freak In is very much studio creation. That was a first for me. I had never made a record that way, so the music that is coming out of the live band is very different. It is unlike anything that I have ever done before. It is really, really exciting.
AAJ: Translating a studio invention to a live audience presents formidable challenges.
DD: It's a rearrangement. It's a complete rearrangement. If you have ever been to see an electronica show, you know that very often, it is just a guy sitting on stage with a laptop. That's not really what I am interested in doing. I want to play a little bit of horn because I love it. I think this album, Freak In , is very deceptive in that it is maybe the most complicated sounding album and yet, it is the most simple, musically. What the tunes actually are is pretty basic. They're really standards in a sense. What we are doing is taking the barebones music and turning it into something else.
AAJ: Every Dave Douglas album is Christmas morning.
DD: That is certainly my goal, but there is also a risk to that. That you are going to lose people. For me, it is really an experiment every time and a true experiment means that you risk failure.
AAJ: Have you failed?
DD: There is a couple records here and there that if given another shot, I might approach it a little differently. I am proud of all of them. I think they all work. And I don't really sit around listening to my records, but every now and then, I will hear something and if I had that to do again, I would approach it a little differently. As far as my own playing, I am never satisfied. I always wish that I could play better. So much about what I do is really about the whole band and the whole music.
AAJ: And those bands have featured two of the most maligned instruments in the history of music: the violin (Mark Feldman) and the accordion (Guy Klucevsek), both of which have had numerous allusions to the devil.
DD: Yeah, I couldn't do it without them. I have the greatest respect from Mark and I have learned so much about music from working with him. I don't think I could have written what I have written for the violin without having that relationship. Guy is very special in a different way. Guy, I think, is the only human being I have ever heard play the accordion that way. It is a much more delicate kind of instrument to bring into a band. Guy has this incredible sensitivity to the flow of the music, but he has also got a sense of sound that is very, very special. It is very pure and very malleable.
AAJ: Apart from your fortieth birthday celebration, this year also marks the tenth anniversary of the Masada group.
DD: That is right. It has been so huge for me. John (Zorn) has been such a great friend and so has Greg Cohen and Joey Baron. It is a really special relationship and I have learned so much from John, I wouldn't know where to begin.
AAJ: The majority of the Masada recordings have been live.
DD: I think it is really hard to make a good live album because so much of your energy when you are playing live is focused toward the people that are there in the room with you, that specific audience, that specific town, in that specific hall, on that given night. To my ears, sometimes that doesn't translate to a CD that is going to be listened to in a lot of different places and times. So it takes a very special moment sonically and musically to make a successful live album.
AAJ: During the upheaval at RCA, you recorded El Triology, a lost recording of Dave Douglas.
DD: You can order it from Downtown Music Gallery (www.dtmgallery.com). If you go to my website (www.davedouglas.com), there is instructions on how to get that record. It is out there. It is available. It can be gotten.
AAJ: These are fragile times. Any parting words?
DD: I'm disturbed by this idea that real politics, that in order to be big boys and understand the ways of the world, we have to be willing to drop some bombs. Because I think that overlooks what really happens when you drop bombs, that a lot of innocent people die. Even though our thinly elected President says that it is his last resort, it really does not seem to be his last resort. It seems to be what he has wanted to do all along and that is very, very dangerous for all of us who travel, for all of us who live anywhere in the world. He is running up a nuclear confrontation with North Korea at the same time, which I think he is trying to keep as quiet as possible. So that makes me think, 'What else is going on while we are all paying attention to this confrontation with Saddam Hussein?' So I would hope that first of all, we can avoid this war and that people pay attention to what this man and his friends are doing. Don't get me wrong, I say this in the most patriotic way. I think I am the biggest America lover there is. Any country that gives you Anthony Braxton and Wayne Shorter and Henry Threadgill and Bill Frisell is the best that there is.
I am a huge patriot, but I want to see the country do things in a proper way and in a way that affects that world that we are all a part of. There is a lot of feuding going on in the music world too, specifically in jazz, people attacking people. I would just make a plea that people spend more time listening to music and less time trying to put people down. It is ridiculous because what I see all too much and all too often is a blatant stereotyping of various musicians. Whether it is putting down the 'young lions' or putting down Dave or putting down somebody else. It is this whole old thing of putting people into a box so that you can write them off. Anyone who really loves music should take another listen and try to understand who someone is as a person and why they are doing what they are doing. I feel that more and more within jazz, there are these parochial battles that are really fantasies. I think most listeners are happy with the range of things that is going on. Everybody that I see when I go on tour seem to be thrilled that they can hear Tim Berne and Ellery Eskelin and me and Don Byron and Steve Coleman all in one world of music. I would just say a little more listening and putting on the records, checking them out.