Dave Douglas: Brave New World
AAJ: Witness, to me, stands apart from your other music in that it sounds more textural or vertical; for example, when I listen to the sextet, a lot of it sounds melody-intensive, using horizontal threads. Witness just sounds so different right out of the gate. When I listened to the first track, my first reaction was "Wow...what is this?"
DD: [laughs] Well, good!
AAJ: Yeah, those opening bars are like the opening shots of Blade Runner...just very effective in immersing you into a completely different world. The inclusion of Ikue Mori on this record adds so much to that feeling of otherworldliness. It seems to me that there has been very little recorded to date that merges jazz / improvised music with electronica. But there has recently been a movement in this direction, with the work on Thirsty Ear, for example. Are you interested in further experimenting with incorporating electronic music as a way of bringing out more textural, atmospheric qualities that you wouldn't normally have access to?
DD: Absolutely. I feel that there is a lot of great work being done in this direction. It's mostly under the surface of what we hear about. But there is a whole scene of electronic improvising that I think is quite vibrant and exciting. Ikue Mori, for those who aren't familiar, moved to New York from Japan in probably '75, and was a very influential drummer in the No Wave scene in New York. And then about ten years after that, began transferring all of her drum sounds into drum machines, and spent a large number of years performing only on drum machines...live drum machines. And then maybe about three or four years ago, transferred all of that into a laptop computer. So now she's touring just with this laptop! It's pretty amazing, and what impresses me the most is how unique and personal it is. I mean, I can hear one note and know right away that it's Ikue playing. She is, to me, one of the top performers for that very reasonthat she's found such a personal and unique voice in music. So it's a real pleasure for me to share the stage with someone of that stature.
Obviously, electronic music is a completely different discipline than learning to play the trumpet and learning to be a jazz player. And I find the juxtaposition of those two disciplines really interesting.
AAJ: What was the genesis of this ensemble? How long has this group been rehearsing with the inclusion of strings?
DD: Well, it was an interesting process for me. The early genesis was a piece that I wrote called "Thoughts Around Mahfouz," based on my readings of Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist, whose work suggested an atmosphere of music to me. And the original group was just a quartet with Ikue Mori and Jamie Saft on keyboards and Kenny Wollesen on drums. We did a few concerts around New York, and I realized that I was asking everyone to do four things at once, which I always try to do myself, but I felt like that was not really fair. So I then reconfigured it and it became this nine-piece ensemble, which premiered at the Donaueschingen New Music Festival in Germany. And that was when Mark Feldman, Erik Friedlander, and Drew Gress came in, and then Chris Speed, Joe Daley on tuba, and Bryan Carrott on mallets, Ikue Mori of course, and then Mike Sarin. So it became this three strings, three horns, three percussion group.
And I realized that in writing the new music, each piece was turning into thisI don't want to say dedicationbut an inspiration by people who I call artists and activists. And I see Mahfouz in the context of illuminating the problems of women in Egyptian society, of class distinctions...he's somebody who's had a lot of trouble over being involved in all of that. So in finishing this music, I was thinking about people like the Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer and people like Ken Saro-Wiwa from Nigeria. And the more I thought about it, and the more I read...the project just snowballed and I realized that this really was some kind of a protest project for me, and very much about expressing my empathy for these victims of senseless greed and misuse of power around the world.
The title track is dedicated to Edward Said, whose writings and thoughts about the intellectual and the artist in society were really quite influential to me. I know that these days, you mention his name, and there's a lot of violent reaction for and against. But I hope that in reading his works people can come to their own conclusions about what he has to say.
AAJ: So this becomes a sort of exposure mechanism...
DD: Well, I hope so. I spent time thinking about how I could make this statement and make some people aware. I think awareness is the most important thing, so that people think about what's going on in the world and participate on whatever level they can. So putting this record out and being able to expose a lot of information in the liner notes on this major label felt like the right thing to do.