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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.

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 charts from the 50s or even earlier, Duke Ellington, John Kirby, or Fletcher Henderson, and then people like Charles Mingus, of course, and then people working now like Henry Threadgill, 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 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, primarily playing straight Fender Rhodes, and the other, Jamie Saft, is playing primarily Wurlitzer through electronic modifications. And then I'll be playing trumpet with the amazing Chris Potter on reeds.

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