Dave Douglas: Moving the Music Forward
“ I don't feel the trumpet is the most important thing in the music I write. ”
There aren't many artists who release records two at a time, but trumpeter Dave Douglas has done it already this year with Leap of Faith, a quartet date for Arabesque, and Soul On Soul, a sextet session for RCA Victor which pays tribute to the late pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. On top of that, Douglas has scored one of the most sought-after prizes in jazz: a week at the Village Vanguard, performing with his sextet from February 29 through March 5 in support of Soul On Soul. Flanked by Greg Tardy on tenor sax and clarinet, Josh Roseman on trombone, Uri Caine on piano, James Genus on bass, and Joey Baron on drums, Douglas puts on an unforgettable show, one that quickens the heart, stimulates the mind, and makes spirits soar. Douglas's recording and gigging schedule is enough to keep at least three musicians insanely busy. All that work is finally getting him some of the mainstream recognition he so richly deserves, and the Vanguard gig ought to prove decisive in that regard. But Douglas doesn't concern himself with the politics of the jazz scene or the trajectory of his own fame. He's interested in moving his music forward and contributing, in several ways at once, to the ongoing evolution of the art form. I spoke to him during the week of his Vanguard engagement.
All About Jazz: You've been associated mostly with venues like the Knitting Factory. Now you're debuting at the Village Vanguard, which is not generally considered part of the "downtown" scene. Do you consider this an issue at all?
Dave Douglas: I feel that those boundaries are unfortunate and a disservice to the music. I do whatever I can to try and dismantle them.
AAJ: How are you finding your stint at the Vanguard so far?
DD: I love it. It's a family down there. It's low-key, everyone's real friendly, and the sound is incredible.
AAJ: Do you find that the second set is usually better than the first?
DD: It's always different. You never know. Sometimes the first set is great and then we're burned out. Sometimes the first set is just a prelude to the second. That's what I like about performing this music. There's a new surprise every night.
AAJ: You just released an album celebrating the legacy of Mary Lou Williams. What speaks to you about this often overlooked figure in jazz history?
DD: I'm inspired by pioneers of the music, people who take chances, musicians who, rather than being flashy instrumentalists, are involved in composing and visualizing a new music. I see Mary Lou Williams very much in that light, as I do Booker Little and Wayne Shorter, the subjects of my other two tribute albums. I have an affinity for that kind of musician, in that I don't feel the trumpet is the most important thing in the music I write. I do love to write for myself, and it's a pleasure to play the trumpet, but it's equally important to me that the ensemble sound be coherent. And that I give everyone else a chance to do their thing.
AAJ: Since you do spend a lot of time writing, away from the trumpet, do you find it a challenge to keep your playing on such a high level?
DD: Yeah, I do. It's a big challenge. It's always been that way. I go through cycles where I'm composing exclusively and I prefer not even to look at the trumpet, and then periods where I'm performing, like this week, and I don't write a note of music. Now I'm taking time to read Mary Lou Williams's biography, which was just published [Morning Glory, Pantheon, 2000]. It's such a great book.
AAJ: The author, Linda Dahl, wrote the liner notes for Soul On Soul.
DD: Yes, and we didn't know about each other's projects until my record was done. I was talking to Peter O'Brien, Mary Lou's manager for the last fifteen years of her life, and he told me about the forthcoming book. So Linda and I talked for a few hours, and I got her to write these liner notes. You know, I've been listening to a lot of Mary Lou's stuff, transcribing and working on more pieces, and I feel like there's a whole other record here.
AAJ: It must be quite a task to narrow down all of her repertoire, although most of the stuff on Soul on Soul is by you, not Mary Lou Williams.
DD: That's what I think a tribute should be. I don't feel that tribute records should be ten interpretations of different pieces by that composer. I feel there's a lot more meaning behind what Mary Lou Williams gave to us than just that. Her spirit lives on in new music. And she'd probably be most happy if the music were moving forward and changing. After all, she was always changing.
AAJ: One usually sees individual tunes dedicated to a specific person, but not a whole program. This is a highly original concept.
DD: The reason I started it, with In Our Lifetime [Douglas's 1994 Booker Little tribute], is that for many years I avoided playing music with this instrumentation: sax, piano, bass, and drums. I didn't feel there was anything new for me to say. That's why I had started the Parallel Worlds band and the Tiny Bell Trio: more surprising instrumentation to try and stretch the sound of improvised music. In jazz, there's such an incredibly huge vocabulary that players have now. All the players in my band could turn around and play any style of music at any moment. And I could write virtually anything from? contemporary classical, klezmer to anything at all, these guys would kill. So as far as the sextet is concerned, the question is not what I put in, but what I leave out. When I realized this, it seemed like a great way to narrow down my focus and make a cohesive statement that moves forward.
AAJ: What about some of your work in the non-jazz realm??
DD: Well, that's the most interesting thing happening in music right now: we don't know what to call it anymore. Some people are really angry that we call this jazz, and others just call everything jazz. And I think that's great. The question itself is what's important.
AAJ: But you've done work with Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, Joe Walsh, Cibo Matto, Ron Sexsmith, and others. What did you take away from those experiences? Did you find it immediately relevant to your own work?
DD: All music is immediately relevant. It's always been that way for me. I've always loved to play all different kinds of stuff. When I worked with Horace Silver in 1987 I was also working with the noise-avant band Doctor Nerve. You can learn from just about any experience. I played weddings for years, and as much as I hated it, I still feel there's something to be gained from it. Someone points at you, and in two seconds you have to play some tune that you only half-know, in a key that is uncomfortable on your instrument, and make it convincing enough for the bride and groom to dance. That's music education. It's also fascinating for me to play on pop records and make a four- or eight-bar statement that sounds like a composition. That's very difficult for me, actually.
AAJ: Speaking of music education, let's talk about yours. You did some jumping around from Berklee to New England Conservatory (NEC) to New York University (NYU). What precipitated those transitions?
DD: I started studying music when I was really young. I did classical harmony in high school, and I was trying to play jazz and improvised music by throwing all of that out the window, which I still do from time to time [laughs]. At Berklee, I was looking for a more in-depth experience with jazz harmony, and it was great for that. But I didn't feel I had a good trumpet teacher, and I always struggled with technique on the trumpet. It has not come easy for me and it's still not easy. So John McNeil was teaching the Carmine Caruso method at NEC, and I had been practicing at Berklee many, many hours daily, with very limited results. Within a month of using this Carmine Caruso technique, my chops just took off. And it all came together right in that year. NEC was also great for ear training, which is too often overlooked and very important for improvising musicians. But I just didn't want to be in Boston anymore; it was time to move to New York. While I was at NYU I was able to study with Carmine Caruso himself for two years. I still go about once a year to his student, Laurie Frank, who carries on his tradition of teaching.
AAJ: What are some of your upcoming projects?
DD: I've been writing dance music for the Trisha Brown company, which will premiere in New York at the Joyce Theater in May. I just finished recording a new Charms of the Night Sky album, which will come out in October on RCA. And I have a new band that premiered last October called Witness. All of the pieces are dedicated to social activist writers, thinkers, and philosophers from around the world. There are more details available at davedouglas.com. I got really angry during the war in Kosovo last spring, because I was traveling right near Yugoslavia when all that stuff went down, when we decided to start bombing them. I was reading articles in the paper every day about weapons makers and how their stock is going up and how great this war is for them, and then I would turn the page and see a million refugees. I've always read about social activism and change, and I've always been involved, but it's always been separate from the music. Witness brings them together.