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Dave Douglas: Brave New World

AAJ Staff By

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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.
Trumpeter / composer Dave Douglas has been creating new worlds for listeners for the past decade. His ethereal writing style for unconventional configurations transports audiences into unfamiliar territory. These distinctive compositions combined with his astonishing technique and expressionist improvisations have brought him critical and public acclaim as a visionary of his generation. The diversity of his influences is marked by the breadth of his own projects as a leader: the lyrical musings of Charms of the Night Sky with accordionist Guy Klucevsek; the Eastern European sounds of the Tiny Bell Trio; his string ensemble Parallel Worlds; a jazz sextet; and the electric double quartet Sanctuary. Perhaps his best-known collaboration has been a long association with John Zorn's Masada. He has also worked with Anthony Braxton, Don Byron, Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, Fred Hersch, Cibo Matto, and most recently Misha Mengelberg. On his latest album, The Infinite, he writes arrangements of current pop music for jazz quintet.

At the turn of the century, Douglas created perhaps his most ambitious and controversial world, assembling a nine-piece ensemble he called Witness for a transcendental work that marked another step in a recent movement incorporating electronic elements into jazz and improvised music. Fueled by his anger over social injustices around the globe, Witness demands a high level of awareness from both the musicians and the listener.

I spoke briefly with Douglas in January 2002 about the Witness project, composition and improvisation, and trumpet playing.

All About Jazz: When I first saw you play, one of the amazing things to witness for me—as a trumpet player—was how fluid your playing was between registers, and the sheer endurance required of playing with the sextet. I read that when you studied at NEC [New England Conservatory], the Carmine Caruso method was very effective for you. Can you describe what that is, why it was effective, and what suggestions you might have for trumpeters seeking to develop their own language?

Dave Douglas: Yeah, the Carmine Caruso method was introduced to me by John McNeil, who is a great trumpeter and a teacher who still teaches at NEC. Really, it's something that saved me. I was never a natural trumpet player. And the trumpet, in fact, kind of goes counter to my personality even...you know, trumpeters are supposed to be brash and crazy...I don't really always feel that way. But I also feel that as a composer, the trumpet is something that I really like to integrate and is something that's inspired me to think a lot of different ways compositionally. The Carmine Caruso method, to break it down quite simply, is really about teaching your body to perform musical notes in time and in pitch. And I know that probably doesn't sound like much [laughs]...but that's the basis of all music making, really. So his idea was that if you strip down all of the millions of movements that go into each note that you produce to the very basic few, you can really teach your body to do those movements very precisely, and with the least effort. Most of the exercises are really quite simple. But it's the mental concentration that's involved that really makes it quite complicated and extremely effective.

AAJ: So is it a way of breaking things down into primitives that you can use?

DD: Yeah, exactly, and subdividing each beat very, very carefully in your mind, learning to produce the tone with a minimum of fuss. He taught all kinds of instrumentalists, singers, and violinists, and saxophonists, and French horn players, and I think it's a fairly universal concept that I've seen applied in a lot of other ways.

AAJ: The trumpet is a very demanding, physical instrument. One of the things that opened my mind was when I talked with [trumpeter] Steven Bernstein, who was in town on a gig. I was excited about an old Martin trumpet I had acquired, but told him, "The only thing I don't like about it is that it doesn't produce the range I want." And he laughed and told me, "Well, that's not the trumpet! You just need to figure out how to play it." And that sort of changed my perspective on approaching the instrument as what I can do for it, not what it can do for me...

DD: It's very true. Especially in brass playing, there's a tendency to blame the instrument. This endless changing of mouthpieces and leadpipes and bore sizes...to tell you the truth...I really have never thought about that at all. And you mentioned Carmine Caruso...his whole thing was, "Let's not even talk about the instrument. Let's talk about you, and what you are going to do, and what you're hearing, and what you would like it to feel like." And I think that that's a lesson that stuck with me. And I've basically been playing the same horn for over twenty years. And I still study with a woman named Laurie Frink, who was the top student of Carmine Caruso. He passed away in '87, I think...he was 87 years old, and that's right around the year that he passed. Laurie is an amazing woman who's also an incredible trumpet player, both as a lead player and as a contemporary classical performer. She's basically distilled a lot of his teachings and gone on to develop some thoughts of her own, and they're extremely helpful. I recommend her to anyone who comes to ask me for advice about trumpet playing, because I feel what I have to say is minimal compared to her vision.


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