Dave Douglas: A Creative Consciousness

Dave Wayne By

Sign in to view read count
Considering trumpeter Dave Douglas' musical career, one word that comes to mind is "consistency." Sure, he's led a dizzying variety of bands playing in all sorts of styles. Yet, of the 30-odd recordings he's led, not one veers from the central mission of presenting challenging, original jazz. An inveterate musical risk taker, Douglas has always led several different bands simultaneously. Back in the mid-1990s, he had Parallel Worlds, Dave Tiny Bell Trio Douglas, and the Dave Douglas Sextet—each with different instrumentation and personnel, each playing its own book of all-original material. Not one to stay in one place too long, Douglas then formed Charms of the Night Sky (a drummer-less quintet with accordionist Guy Klucevsek), Sanctuary (a double quartet featuring two trumpeters, two samplers, two bassists, drums, and reeds), and a piano-less quartet. After signing a major label record deal in 2000, Douglas' music became even more challenging, encompassing elements of electronica, fusion, post-bop, and various traditional ethnic musics.

After the major label deal ran its course, Douglas didn't flinch. He launched his own label, Greenleaf Music, in 2005. Initially devoted to documenting his own music, Douglas expanded the label's roster to include significant new works by flutist/vocalist Nicole Mitchell, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Curtis Macdonald, bassist Michael Bates, guitarist Nels Cline, and the wonderful avant-fusion band Kneebody. All of these recordings can now be heard via the label's latest venture, the Greenleaf Cloud Player.

Despite a plate full of his own projects—including Bad Mango (with So Percussion); the Orange Afternoons Quintet (featuring Vijay Iyer and Ravi Coltrane); Brass Ecstasy (with Vincent Chancey, Nasheet Waits, Luis Bonilla, and Marcus Rojas); and KeyMotion (Douglas' electric band with saxophonist Donny McCaslin)—Douglas remains highly sought after as a sideman, bringing his instantly recognizable sound to projects such as Richard Galliano's Nino Rota tribute. Douglas recently formed Soundprints, a new band focusing on the music of Wayne Shorter, with Joe Lovano, and Joey Baron.

All About Jazz: Please tell us about the project you're working that pays tribute to Nino Rota's film soundtracks. Your sound is quite compatible with this decidedly non-jazz milieu.

Dave Douglas: It's a quintet led by the virtuoso accordion player Richard Galliano, with John Surman on soprano saxophone, the Russian bassist Boris Kozlov, and Clarence Penn on drums.

AAJ: Is this something you put together?

DD: Not at all. This is completely Richard's project and his arrangements. There's a new recording, on Deutsche Grammophon, of all of this music [Richard Galliano Plays the Music of Nino Rota (2011)].

AAJ: Is this Rota's soundtrack music, or does it focus on other music he's written?

DD: This is all soundtrack music to the Fellini movies.

AAJ: It's more of a classical-sounding sort of thing, though. Is there much room for improvisation?

DD: I try to fit in some jazz where I can—my little thing [laughs]. There is actually quite a bit of space for improvisation, but a lot of it is us using our own voices to find something interesting to do that takes the music in a new direction. Our tendency, as jazz musicians, is to try to get inside the music and bring something of value from our own language.

AAJ: You recently released a three-CD box set, Three Views (Greenleaf, 2011), that features three different groups, yet has a real unity to it. Tell us more about this.

DD: Well, I guess I am cursed with this desire to constantly come up with new projects and to meet new people I'd like to perform with. When I do that, it engages my composer's mind, and I start to write new music as well. Each of these projects came about this year, based on things I was writing and new relationships that I wanted to engage. As Greenleaf developed this Portable Series idea, it clicked that I could do these shorter recording sessions in a more informal, intimate way, and that I could put them out into the stream almost instantaneously.

As the project went along, and we had the three recordings all finished, a lot of people were asking for the CDs. A lot of people in the jazz world, while being technologically capable of streaming and downloading, still like to have a package with a design and photos and liner notes, and all that. So that's what we've done with the Three Views box set. It puts together all of the sessions I've done for the Greenleaf Portable Series (GPS) this year. And, as you said, each of them is with a different group.

The first one (Rare Metals) is with the Brass Ecstasy band. I was inspired to write a new set of compositions and take the band into the studio after we released the United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport (Greenleaf, 2011) CD.

The second one (Orange Afternoons) is a quintet with Ravi Coltrane, Vijay Iyer, Marcus Gilmore, and Linda May Han Oh—some of my favorite players. I wanted to do a session that was, for the lack of a better word, more of a straight-ahead jazz session. So we came together and learned these tunes that are actually more like lead-sheet-type tunes. There was a lot of freedom in it, and Vijay and Ravi were really able to make their own way with these pieces. I've known these people for some time, and I was able to pull them together for this session and for the gig at the Jazz Standard.

The final one is—and I hate to use the word "classical" because I think you use the word about style, and it tends to put people in a box—so let's say it's with a creative percussion quartet called So Percussion. We're going to record the week at the Standard and possibly see what happens. It may go on to a stream of its own.

AAJ: You have another band as well that's not represented in the boxed set—the KeyMotion band with Donny McCaslin, Adam Benjamin and DJ Logic.

From left: Dave Douglas, Donny McCaslin

DD: Actually, the fourth band is something that came up at a summer festival this year. Someone said to me, "Well, you have this electric band, and Donny McCaslin has his electric band—and you haven't been working with the Quintet—so why don't you put them together?" So we did. Donny's group is called Perpetual Motion and mine is called Keystone, hence the name KeyMotion. We're playing half his repertoire and half mine, and the rhythm section is kind of a cross between the two. It's a lot of fun.

AAJ: You've been in the forefront of the Fender Rhodes revival (for lack of a better term). Do you have a special love for the Rhodes, or is there something else you're trying to get to, sound-wise?

DD: I love the Fender Rhodes. I'm 48, and may have been infected by some of that same, uh, smoke [laughs] that was in the air back then when people were using both the Fender Rhodes and the Fender Rhodes replicas, which sort of took over after a certain point. But I prefer the original Fender Rhodes, which is really an acoustic instrument, if you think about it. It's hammers hitting against tines. Like a piano, there's a percussive activity taking place when you play it. It really has a warm, rich sound. When I first started writing for it in the Quintet, I felt that I could get to thicker, richer sonorities, and it could do things with sustain that an acoustic piano can't really get to. And I was looking at some of the effects in the high range; there's a bell-like quality that I could write for.

But even though I was writing for the Fender Rhodes in the Quintet, I would never call that an electric band. There was acoustic bass, and the Rhodes was functioning very much like an acoustic instrument in the context of the band. When using it in a band like KeyMotion, it's much more about how the tone can be altered in the hands of a great player like Adam.

AAJ: Adam Benjamin really uses a lot of effects, and he's really investigating the instrument as a sound-generating device, rather than as just another keyboard.

DD: Well, I think—and I would guess that Donny would probably agree—that Adam's role in the band is to provide a bridge to the other electronics. In Keystone, I always had DJ Olive in the band, who was providing all sorts of electronic sounds, and I always felt that if there wasn't some kind of bridge to another instrument in the band, that was also bringing in an altered sense of timbre, the DJ would sound isolated and out of place.

AAJ: For some reason, a lot of groups that have worked with turntablists to bring in—for the lack of a better term—a hip-hop element into their music are led by trumpeters: you, Nils Petter Molvaer, Tim Hagans, Erik Truffaz...

DD: Wallace Roney. Wallace does it really well, by the way!

AAJ: Courtney Pine has also been doing it for a while now, but it's like the trumpeters are leading the way.

DD: Well, I have to stop you for a second because, when we were playing at the Village Vanguard, DJ Olive was playing with us and everyone said, "Oh my God, there's a DJ playing at the Vanguard. This must be a first." But then Lorraine Gordon pointed out that Thelonious Monk used to get on stage and play his own records for the audience. So, in fact, DJ Olive was not the first turntablist to play the Village Vanguard. We're just traditionalists at heart [laughs].

AAJ: Following on from that, back then, most jazz artists basically did one project at a time. Nowadays, it's commonplace for artists to have multiple projects running concurrently. Is this a business imperative or an artistic imperative? Are you doing this because you want to, or because you have to?

DD: I think it's an artistic imperative for most people who do it. When I came onto the scene, I was inspired by people like Don Byron, Tim Berne, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Steve Coleman. All of these people had already established this idea of having different groups. Even Lester Bowie was doing that back in the '80s with an organ band and a brass band, while still playing with the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Speaking for myself, the reason that I began forming different groups was because I realized that you can't really express all of the sensibilities of the music that we're exposed to now in one project. I haven't seen anyone do it, let me put it that way, and I haven't been able to do it myself, and I've found that it's more interesting to try to zone in on one theme or one kind of sound and present it in a band, than to try to hire five musicians and have them represent every aspect of the music spectrum that interests you.

And I think that's something that came naturally to me, and that I was doing before I had a gig or a record deal. When I was finally able to get a record deal, in the early '90s, I had four bands. In very quick succession, I was able to record all four of those projects, thankfully. And I continued in that spirit of discovering musicians that really inspire me, and writing for them and trying to develop long-term relationships with them. And also to be open to different kinds of music and how they can intersect with my own language as a composer. And, finally, with my experience as a jazz musician—and I say that knowing that some people think that what I end up doing is outside of the realm of jazz. I don't know what the answer is to that, but I've found over the years that everything I bring my energies to—my natural inclination is to bring improvisation into it, and to bring in a blues language, and to bring in the elements I learned coming up as a jazz player.

AAJ: Even from your first CD, Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1993), you had a string trio, and it sounded like Bartok, but it was also quite obviously a jazz recording.

DD: Whether it's been done or not, all music is valid and important, and you should be thankful that it's here. And yet, what I think has happened is that as musicians look around for new things to do and for new sources of inspiration, the world expands and new elements come into the music. I think that can only be good for the music. I think that—especially around New York for some reason, and I wonder if it's always been this way—you can go out on any given night and hear young musicians doing some new tweak on the idea of musicians playing together and improvising. And it's going to be something that you never thought possible or viable. And this process is never going to stop. It's wonderful, and I feel pretty grateful to be a part of that.

AAJ: Back in 2006, when you were last interviewed for All About Jazz, a lot of the discussion was about forming your own record company, Greenleaf Music, and distributing your music online—and this was a big deal, a completely revolutionary move. Here we are, five or six years later, and the internet has become the medium. Instead of putting out CDs, the music is hosted by the cloud. The way we get to hear music is completely different, and you've been right at the forefront of that. How had this affected your music—how do you conceive of an album? What is an album anymore?

DD: I know; you're right. It's been a gradual process. I probably pointed out in that earlier interview that we did not set out to be an internet company. We gradually have drifted in this direction. Of course, we're still making CDs and the catalog keeps growing, and we're recording other artists, and the number of people who are able to find us and to get our records are growing every year. But the technology's changing too, and you've said something really prescient there, which is "What is an album in this day and age?" The wonderful thing about the technology is that it gives the artist a choice as to what they want the album to be. Is it a YouTube clip? Is your latest release something that's going to be on Tumblr? Or is your release going to be more or less 60 minutes of music in a Digipak with a set of liner notes? So there are a lot of different ways of releasing things.

One of the things I find exciting about Greenleaf and our relationship to our listeners is that the listeners are able to bundle. They can come to us and take what they want. Some get one track, a bunch of sheet music and a T-shirt. Some come and buy CDs, and we still do a lot of that by mail order. Of course, we're still distributed worldwide, and CDs are still going out that way. But I think that for subscribers who can stream the entire catalog from their mobile devices—that's the Cadillac of getting the music in your hands now, in any format that you want. And, at that point, it's access to the whole catalog. And what's to stop you from going through each album and checking it out? It's great.

AAJ: Tell us about some of the other artists who are available through Greenleaf. Of course, there's Donny McCaslin.

DD: Donny has done a few things for us now, and we're talking about the next record with him. Nicole Mitchell and Indigo Trio did a record for us a few years back with Harrison Bankhead and Hamid Drake. Michael Bates, the bassist—he's just releasing a new record on Sunnyside that is fantastic [in addition to his releases on Greenleaf]. He's a great, great, young bassist. There's an equally great alto saxophonist, Curtis MacDonald. Also, Kneebody—I am really proud that we put that one out. I think they're really one of the great groups out there.

AAJ: The way we hear about new artists has changed. These days, you don't often get that sense of connection between the artist and the label they're recording for. In the past, a label had a personality—a group of associated or similar artists—that led listeners to discover new artists.

DD: Well, I think that people who follow the music know that you're going to find artists by going straight to their website and figuring out what they're doing and where to get their recorded output. More artists are just taking it into their own hands and doing it themselves. It's much easier for the artist to do that now than it was 10 years ago. And yet the major distributors still have a lot of power, and the iTunes store still has awesome power, and I mean that in a good way. I'm not protesting. I think the iTunes Store is really an important place for music to be discovered, and we certainly sell there. But, again, it's certainly not like going into a record store and browsing around through the CDs, it's discovering things online through your computer, and artists are really taking advantage of putting themselves out there that way, and trying to expand their audience by reaching out and making the music more available.

For a lot of listeners, they never went to record stores. It's an alien concept to them, and it's a mistake to think that the music should still be distributed this way. I personally would love it if it was still like that, but that's the reality, and the music has to adapt as well.

AAJ: At least you can still go to the music store and try out the instruments in person.

DD: [Laughs.] Well, you bring up a good point, because I discovered music in school and had access to instruments through school. And I go to schools now, and it's just not available. You really have to struggle to put yourself in the way of an instrument at this point, in schools. And that's really a big problem.

Even in elementary school, even if you're not looking at a career in the arts or music, to be exposed to the arts and culture, to just have the experience of holding an instrument in your hand and try to feel what it is to make that sound—it's so important on so many levels. And levels which, later in life, may have nothing at all to do with music: interpersonal relationships, debating skills, thought and comprehension, and appreciation of culture and history. It's something that enriches the entire country.

AAJ: Please tell us about your upcoming projects. Is there any chance that your present tour with Richard Galliano will come to the US?

DD: I don't know. I haven't heard any rumors about that. This is the end of it, as far as I know. But when I come back, I'm going to jump right into this new project that's called Soundprints. It's a new quintet with Joe Lovano, and the rhythm section's going to be Lawrence Fields, James Genus, and Joey Baron. And it's music inspired by Wayne Shorter—original compositions, some of his pieces—and there's a rumor that he may write something for us. I don't know if that's going to come to fruition, but I certainly hope that it does. We're playing a couple dates in Boston right at the end of this month, and then I'm going into this project at the Jazz Standard, and that will round up the year for me.

AAJ: And each of the four nights at the Standard will have a different band.

DD: Each night a different band. I think it's going to be considerably different than on the records, as usual. I think people know that when they go to hear jazz live, it's not going to be like it was on the records.

I'm especially excited about the So Percussion thing. We made that record in their studio. So we went out to their place in Brooklyn and we set up a mobile recording environment. They have this studio that's crammed with hundreds of percussion instruments. So what we're going to do now is see how many of them we can fit on stage down at the Jazz Standard [laughs]. The recording was interesting because it's all percussion, and at first I thought it was going to be all non-pitched, you know, just trumpet and drums. And then I started having contact with them and writing, and they're playing steel drums—which are pitched, obviously—and bass marimba, all kinds of bells, pump organ. And so the session ended up in this very rich place that ended up somewhere in between the pitched percussion world and the non-pitched. And it brought all of these very interesting timbral possibilities to the table.

I had written some really challenging polyrhythmic parts for them as well, and that was the stuff they had the least amount of difficulty performing [laughs]. They nailed it the first time! And I said, "Wait a minute, guys, that's supposed to be really hard." And they just said, "This is what we do!" [laughs]. It was a really funny moment. So that's going to be a good night.

The night with Donny is going to be really special because we've been playing together for a long time. There's a recording of a concert we did at the festival this summer that, as the date of this next show gets closer, will probably appear in the Greenleaf stream. I have to say, Brass Ecstasy—after doing it all these years—it's sort of like coming home. We did a lot of touring over the last few years, and now that's sort of moved off the front burner. But every time we get back together it's so much fun and it's so warm and sort of chaotic and crazy because we're all horn guys.

AAJ: As with Lester Bowie's brass band, there's a brashness and broad humor in Brass Ecstasy, but there's also this sweetness and lyricism. Are you going for that?

DD: Well, that's unavoidable for me. It's just who I am. But I also hear that in Lester. He was an incredibly lyrical player who could play a ballad that would make you cry. Maybe that was something that he wasn't primarily associated with, but I hear that, and that speaks to me, and maybe that's just because of who I am.

I always felt, growing up, that jazz was progressive music. My instinct in writing, and doing projects and developing relationships, was to do something innovative, and different and fresh. And it surprised me, when it came out, that it was typecast as avant-garde, because I'd always felt that I was somehow a lyrical player despite trying to avoid that, at times. So, when I hear people say avant-garde, I am always a little bit quizzical. And I feel, at this point, even the definition of the phrase avant-garde is somewhat open to question. So as much as I've been in these worlds of experimental music and progressive music, and as much as I love it and am still involved in that—when you say you hear this lyrical quality in the music of Brass Ecstasy, it's nice for me because that's at the heart of what I do—looking for melody and harmony and rhythm and all of the great traditional values in music. I just look for them in a different way. I'm looking for a new way to say "I love you."

AAJ: Rudresh Mahanthappa was perplexed because he'd seen his music labeled as free jazz. His music is a lot of things, but it's definitely not freely improvised—in fact it's quite the opposite. It's very carefully written out. People just assume that if it's avant-garde, it must be free improv, even when that's obviously not the case.

DD: It's interesting to me, because I get to be around a lot of young musicians when I'm doing workshops and residencies at places like the University of Miami or the Banff Centre or at the Royal Academy in London, and a lot of young musicians feel like they are handed a lot of these categories as a way to understand the different movements in jazz and improvised music over the last 50 years. When we start to play, I think that young musicians tend to be so open that they recognize that these categories are disposable. It's not really so important to them what's in or out, what's free jazz or avant-garde, what's mainstream or straight-ahead or trad. There's this new consciousness taking hold that it's all music, and that it's all a vocabulary that can be used to maximize personal expression through music. It's a wonderful thing to sense this from the young generation.

AAJ: What you're talking about is, in a sense, about being typecast.

DD: Well, we have to have categories, especially when you're learning. You have to learn things in blocks. You can't just say the word "music," and it suddenly all becomes clear. You learn things bit by bit. And when it comes to playing music, when it comes to being an instrumentalist and improvising, when it comes to creating music, having a conception as a composer—the whole idea that we can work freely from all of the sounds available is becoming, more and more, the norm.

And that brings us back to where we started this conversation. You asked me about why I'm doing all of these different projects, and why have I always done it. It's just from this same instinct that I'm talking about now.

Selected Discography

Dave Douglas and So Percussion, Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 3: Bad Mango (Greenleaf, 2011)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 2: Orange Afternoons (Greenleaf, 2011)
Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, Greenleaf Portable Series Volume 1: Rare Metals (Greenleaf, 2011)
Richard Galliano, Richard Galliano Plays Nino Rota (Deutsche Grammophon, 2011)
Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, United Front: Brass Ecstasy at Newport (Greenleaf , 2011)
Dave Douglas and Keystone, Spark Of Being (Greenleaf, 2010)
Masada Quintet/Joe Lovano, Stolas: Book of Angels Volume 12 (Tzadik, 2009)
Dave Douglas & Brass Ecstasy, Spirit Moves (Greenleaf, 2009)
Dave Douglas & the Radio Frankfurt Big Band, A Single Sky (Greenleaf, 2009)
Dave Douglas & Keystone, Live at Jazz Standard (Greenleaf, 2008)
Kenny Werner, Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note, 2007)
Dave Douglas & Keystone, Moonshine (Greenleaf, 2007)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Live at the Jazz Standard (Greenleaf, 2007)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Music, 2006)
Dave Douglas & Keystone,
Live in Sweden (Greenleaf Music, 2006)
Dave Douglas, Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005)
Dave Douglas/Nomad, Mountain Passages (Greenleaf, 2005)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Strange Liberation (RCA, 2004)
Dave Douglas, Freak In (Bluebird, 2003)
Dave Douglas Quintet, The Infinite (Bluebird, 2002)
Dave Douglas, Witness (Bluebird, 2001)
Dave Douglas, A Thousand Evenings (RCA, 2000)
Dave Douglas, Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000)
Dave Douglas, Convergence (Soul Note, 1999)
Dave Douglas, Stargazer (Arabesque, 1998)

Post a comment


Shop Amazon


All About Jazz needs your support

All About Jazz & Jazz Near You were built to promote jazz music: both recorded and live events. We rely primarily on venues, festivals and musicians to promote their events through our platform. With club closures, shelter in place and an uncertain future, we've pivoted our platform to collect, promote and broadcast livestream concerts to support our jazz musician friends. This is a significant but neccesary effort that will help musicians now, and in the future. You can help offset the cost of this essential undertaking by making a donation today. In return, we'll deliver an ad-free experience (which includes hiding the bottom right video ad). Thank you.

Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.