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Interviews

Dave Douglas: Brave New World

By Published: April 1, 2002
AAJ: Your work is so varied. Each group is so distinctly its own world. Yet when I listen to all of your ensembles, if there is a common thread, it's that the pieces seem to float between composition / notation and improvisation, without having a strong, defined line. Is that one of the things you strive for in your writing—to sort of gray that line? How do you implement that and how do you communicate that as a goal to the musicians?

DD: Well, let's put it this way: It's an element that I like to play with—that boundary line between composition and improvisation—as a means to making beautiful music that is fun to play. And I feel that you have to approach it differently each time with each piece. There's no one set answer to how composition and improvisation should interact. The first step in that is having the right players who understand the language and what the goals are. For me, it really is a new challenge in each composition of how am I going to play with this line, how am I going to make what's notated sound like it was improvised, and what's improvised sound like it was notated...or not! And I think that a large misunderstanding on the part of people hearing this music is that you would be able to break it down into percentages, that someone could ask, "How much is that improvised, and how much was written?" and you could answer, "Well 40% written and 60% improvised." It doesn't really work like that anymore for most composers involved in this language, which is a very American language, that perhaps emerges from the jazz tradition.

Now I think...even as I listen back to Gil Evans
Gil Evans
Gil Evans
1912 - 1988
composer/conductor
charts from the 50s or even earlier, Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, John Kirby
John Kirby
1908 - 1942
bass, acoustic
, or Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
Fletcher Henderson
1897 - 1952
arranger
, and then people like Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
Charles Mingus
1922 - 1979
bass, acoustic
, of course, and then people working now like Henry Threadgill
Henry Threadgill
Henry Threadgill
b.1944
reeds
, I always feel that what's written is so colored by the players' personalities, it would be hard to break it down into how much of it was improvised and how much is written. And within the improvisation, it's so colored by the language of the composition, that it's hard to say, again, what part of that is improvised and what part of that is the composition. If you have a set of chords that move along at a certain pace, and everyone in the band is playing music from a given set of instructions based on those chords, at what point do we decide which part of that is composed, or pre-decided? So I think what is interesting to me is how all of those elements can blend, and how specific players with really interesting personal languages can interact with that, with those kind of rules.

AAJ: There is something in the liner notes to Witness that you stated that struck me, which was that "everyone understands the overall arc of the piece." It occurred to me that in other art forms, that awareness is almost implicit—the artists are even trained that way...theater in particular comes to mind...where artists know the context of the scene..

DD: ...well, I think in good theater...absolutely...

AAJ: Right...to me, it's kind of a line between spontaneity and context awareness. Spontaneity is always heralded in this music: "We need to be spontaneous!"

DD: [laughs] "Be Spontaneous Now!"

AAJ: Exactly...spontaneity is great, but there's another virtue, which is understanding what the piece means and improvising with a global understanding of the context of what you're playing in. Do you try to inspire the artists to think in this way?

DD: Well, it's a huge question, and also because meaning is so elusive in music. And I think that if you're going to include the performer in this collaborative process of composing and improvising, then you're going to also ask them on some level to think about the meaning on their own and propose their own interpretations, which then you may or may not find an affinity with. So that's a very interesting give-and-take. But quite simply, we're dealing with players who have very broad playing vocabularies and are aware of all different kinds of music. So they are able to come to a specific musical moment with all of that background and knowledge, and bring hopefully original ideas that transcend all of that and add to the piece itself. And those are the kinds of players I'm talking about when I say that this is a large group...but there's no conductor. And that means that everyone really has to understand the larger shape of the piece and the language in which it's written, and what the goals—dynamically, rhythmically, and texturally—are at any given moment.

AAJ: This new group Witness, a nine-piece ensemble, is your largest ensemble recording to date. How do you translate such a large recording project to live performances?

DD: Well, it's been interesting for me to move from having this enormous recording project—there are actually twelve musicians over the breadth of the CD—to performing the music live. When I began live performances, I felt that we were trying to recreate what was on the record...and I've never really been about re-creation....I like recreation [laughs]. But trying to make the music that was on the record from night to night was really difficult and also not that much fun for the players. So I have kind of retooled it and rearranged things to open up some of the possibilities that are suggested by the music on the record. The ensemble that has been touring this music is kind of another way of looking at the music on the record. It's really been an interesting process for me. Of course, Ikue Mori}, the wonderful laptop player, is touring with the group, and she's featured on the record. Michael Sarin is the drummer. Brad Jones
Brad Jones
Brad Jones

bass
has been playing Ampeg baby bass, which is a fantastic sound that I had never worked with before. And I have two electric keyboard players: one of them, Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
Craig Taborn
b.1970
keyboard
, primarily playing straight Fender Rhodes, and the other, Jamie Saft
Jamie Saft
Jamie Saft

piano
, is playing primarily Wurlitzer through electronic modifications. And then I'll be playing trumpet with the amazing Chris Potter
Chris Potter
Chris Potter
b.1971
reeds
on reeds.


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