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Interviews

Dave Douglas: There's Wisdom Everywhere in the Universe

By Published: June 17, 2013
AAJ: Oh yeah, that's my demographic [laughing]...

DD: [laughing] In June, she's releasing her first solo album [Fossils (Yep Roc, 2013)], and it's a really fantastic blend of singer/songwriter, popular music, bluegrass, and rock. So, she's not a jazz singer, although she went through the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied with [vocalist] Dominique Eade
Dominique Eade
Dominique Eade
b.1958
vocalist
and all of those other wonderful musicians. She's an incredibly well-trained vocalist whose heart lies in her Irish heritage, and in traditional Irish folk music which is quite beautiful. And this may be a coincidence, or maybe not, but I think it might have been much harder for me to do an album of hymns with a so-called straight jazz singer. The idea that Aoife was coming from a place much closer to the point of origin of these tunes... the cultural overlays that have occurred through subsequent eras produced something that was quite touching for me. And I didn't see this at the time, but I think that this same sort of thing is happening with vocalists in jazz as well.

If you look at singers like Rebecca Martin, or Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens

vocalist
, or Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato
Gretchen Parlato

vocalist
or even, to some extent, Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding
b.1984
bass, acoustic
and—if you go back a few years—Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson
b.1955
vocalist
. In fact, Cassandra may have been one of the first singers in this modern era to go back and really address traditional music. And that really appealed to me, because I really like to strip things down to the simplest elements and then build from there. Stripping things away to rebuild, that's always been my modus operandi.

And even with this new record there are a lot of complex ideas in there, but most of the tunes just take up a page or two. And even the most complicated ideas I try to boil down to their most simple essence so that they can be easily digested by both the players and the listeners. So, when we do take it into parallel time worlds [laughing] it's still something that the listener can relate to, and see how we got from Point A to Point B.

AAJ: Be Still is so directly emotional, but the really beautiful thing about that record was that every one of the players—Aoife especially—was able to be totally themselves even though the music seemed to exist between two separate worlds that don't usually intersect. But you got into something really profound there...

DD: It's not a pose that we're playing these hymns. We're not proselytizing for a religion, but we're not avoiding the spiritual content of the music. We're not taking an ironic stance, either. Like I said before, we're not posing with this music. The verses that we sang, and some of the verses that Aoife adapted, were all chosen by my mom. That's what she wanted us to play at her service. She chose them. And they're all these universal spiritual tunes that are very uplifting. People have come up to me to tell me that this record got them through some difficult times.

The other thing that people say is "I'm so sorry about your mom." And that's nice, but it's not that sort of album either. It's not elegiac or sorrowful at all. It's uplifting. The message that my mom came to, in the end, was "Now I'm moving on to a different place, and I'll see you there." It was not "I am going to miss you so much." It was more along the lines of "This is great, let's have a celebration, just like we did when you were born." And that's reflected in the songs she chose for us to play. It was very, very powerful. And I definitely shed some tears during the making of this record, but they weren't tears of sorrow... they were tears of joy.

AAJ: Well that was quite palpable in the music. I've got to thank you for making that record.

DD: Well, thank you. I'm very proud of it. And now it's being issued as an LP on heavyweight vinyl, and it sounds incredibly gorgeous. The whole package is really beautiful, with the artwork and all. I see Time Travel as a companion piece. It's the same musicians, but we're playing original music and taking it in different directions.

There's one more thing I'd like to mention about Aoife. You'll notice that a lot of the contexts in which she has to sing are quite harmonically challenging and rich. And some of her entrances are really, really difficult. You really have to know what's going on to come in with a vocal entrance on a very interesting note [laughs] in the middle of a musical phrase with Matt Mitchell improvising all these wild harmonies all around you. She really hung with us on the highest musical level. It wasn't like we were bringing a "singer" into the band. It was like having another musician in the band. And we've done a bunch of live shows with her and she's constantly operating at the highest musical level.


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