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Dave Douglas: Convergence

AAJ Staff By

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Even if you consider yourself only marginally knowledgeable about modern jazz, there remains virtually no valid excuse for not having heard of trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas. Over the past 5 years Douglas' recordings have appeared on numerous yearly "best of " lists including those of the New York Times, the Village Voice and All About Jazz. His various projects include tribute albums to Booker Little, Wayne Shorter, and Joni Mitchell all of which feature his own adventurous compositions in addition to inventive interpretations of compositions by the artists-in-tribute. Although he might be best known as a member of John Zorn's Masada, his versatile talents as a trumpeter have also prominently contributed to recordings by pianists Myra Melford, Uri Caine, Steve Beresford, and Fred Hersch; bassists Michael Formanek, Mark Dresser, Greg Cohen, Mario Pavone, and John Lindberg; clarinetists Don Byron, Ned Rothenberg, and Francois Houle, and saxophonist Larry Ochs. Douglas has repeatedly appeared in the Down Beat Critics' Poll as TDWR (Talent Deserving Wider Recognition).

In this latter respect, you can be forgiven (but only momentarily) if you've never actually heard the work of Dave Douglas. Despite a prolific output, he's never released a disc for a major recording label. Douglas' recordings have instead graced a number of lesser known, small, or newer music labels, such as Arabesque, New World/Countercurrents, Winter and Winter, Avant, DIW, Songlines, Knitting Factory, and hat ART. His discs are difficult, but far from impossible, for the resourceful and ardent follower of modern jazz to find and procure (far more inexplicable is why jazz radio programming consistently ignores music from these labels).

Dave Douglas' latest release, Convergence, is both his third for the Soul Note label and the third recording of what could be his most ambitious ensemble, a quintet (referred to as the String Group) which in addition to Douglas (trumpet) includes the formidable talents of Mark Feldman (violin), Erik Friedlander (cello), Drew Gress (bass), and Michael Sarin (drums).

All About Jazz was unexpectedly favored with good fortune when Dave Douglas agreed to the proposal of an impromptu interview to discuss Convergence. We caught up with Douglas in mid-March during a particularly hectic week bookended by performances of the Sanctuary and Charms of the Night Sky bands and just before embarking on a three week tour of Europe with the Tiny Bell Trio.

On String Group Convergence

All About Jazz: In his essay "Kafka and His Precursors," Jorge Luis Borges writes, "The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." Do you think this statement could also be applied to you and your work as a musician/composer? If so, who or what might your precursors be? Which works do you think might bear resemblance to works of your own, yet nevertheless have little resemblance to each other? What disparate singularities, ideas, or qualities in these works might a listener be able to be draw together as a result of your composing and recording?

Dave Douglas: In "Lutoslawski Profile," a book of interviews with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, he says, "Composers often do not hear the music that is being played; it only serves as an impulse for something quite different— for the creation of music that only lives in their imagination. It is a sort of schizophrenia—we are listening to something and at the same time creating something else." I would have to agree, and add that by making new music we influence the way the music of the past is seen. I have tried in my own listening to stay open to as many different musics as possible, and I feel that everything I hear has an influence in some way. I was lucky as a young child to hear all sorts of different musics with no value judgements attached. Perhaps the only defining quality of my music would be that I'm open to exploring these many areas, all the while trying to make the result something unique and honest.

AAJ: You've clearly expressed that Messrs. Feldman, Friedlander, Gress, and Sarin are nothing less than indispensable and that this music could not exist without them, not only because you've written and arranged it for them as specific individuals, but also because they subsequently re-shape the material during performance. Although you must be able to anticipate what they will do with and to the material once you've submitted it to them, do you still find the results frequently unpredictable? Or when working with this band, are you instead consistently and expectedly surprised? How often does a piece become completely unlike what you expected it to be? Are there any examples of this phenomenon on Convergence?

DD: Each piece works differently in this regard. I like to work very pragmatically—once I've written the large ideas of a piece, I'm most concerned with making it work for the band. That means that each person has a part that makes sense and they are happy to play; and that they have enough flexibility within the part to find new things and provoke the parameters of the piece. Also important to me is that the harmony, melody and rhythm somehow get clearly expressed. I try occasionally to write forms that invite surprise and unpredictability. In those pieces I try not to have expectations of what will happen, but to play and watch what arises, then to think further and talk about it and continue exploring. The best examples of this on "Convergence" are "Joe's Auto Glass" and "Border Stories." If you go back to "Five," check out "Over Farrell's" , or "In Progress" on "Parallel Worlds."

AAJ: What have you found to be the first reaction of these musicians to your music? Do you find that they tend to improvise by first experimenting with a piece of music and then exploring it later? Or vice versa? In regards to your own approach to improvisation have you noticed any tendencies?

DD: The reaction is often: "Man, this is hard, what a drag." Then we get down to work. I try not to talk about improvisation too much because everyone's approach is so unique and interior. I let everyone come to their own conclusions of how to play and improv. If things get really far away from the intent of the compositions, then we talk.

AAJ: Does working with these gifted musicians grant you a confidence that you can challenge or transcend your own capacity and ability as a composer/arranger? i.e., that you can attempt structures that might be intimidating or challenging for you personally but that you know will work? Do they give you confidence in yourself, as a trumpeter, that ordinarily would not be there apart from them?

DD: Even more simply, I could not conceive of this music without the ensembles in mind.

AAJ: In the liner notes to Convergence, you state that "the string quintet is neither an example of "chamber jazz" nor an attempt to "swing the classics."" Since this tells us what the band IS NOT, would you like to take this opportunity to define (at the risk of confining) what the band IS?

DD: If you can tell me what this music is, I'd be very grateful. For me it is an attempt to make music, pure and simple.

AAJ: What experiences of recording Five were specifically carried overinto composing Convergence? What experiences of recording "Convergence"will be carried over to the next set of compositions for the String Group?

DD: I think that being on the road together and performing a lot has had more influence than anything else. That's how you discover what works (and what doesn't) and push yourself to try new things. It's an ensemble sound that is without precedent, so we've had to define for ourselves how the roles will work and can shift. That's up to each musician to experience and learn. There is a lot of music on this new CD (is it 72 minutes?) and that is because we had a chance to get out and develop many different areas of the sound.

On Tiny Bell Trio

AAJ: You've admitted to being influenced by a number of different types of music that you were exposed to during your childhood. But from whence is the fascination with Eastern European song forms? Is this a relatively recent development? Was Art Lande's late '‘70s band Rubisa Patrol (with trumpeter Mark Isham) an inspiration in any way?

DD: My experiences with Eastern European music are more recent. They began in the late 80s in an experimental Dance/Music/Theater group in Switzerland, which was using Romanian folk music as the basis of a show. Then I begantranscribing tapes of various different traditional musics from that part of the world. In 1990, I began playing klezmer music with Don Byron, which was a great education. It was in 1991 or '92 that I began writing my own music in the style of these various traditions, and to experiment with improvising on the trad pieces. As to why the fascination, I really don't know, other than that it's great and inspiring music; and I think it lends itself well to improvisation.

On Charms of the Night Sky

AAJ: if (and I heavily stress "if") the string quintet is your "serious, tight, and virtuosic" band, and if Tiny Bell Trio is your "fun, witty, fast and loose (but also virtuosic)" band, then how best to characterize Charms of the Night Sky? Perhaps the "late night romantic (but virtuosic) band?" (Sorry for the levity, this question is not meant disrespectfully.)

DD: Charms... is the band that I have the hardest time describing. Again, if you can do that for me it would be much appreciated.

On Sanctuary

AAJ: Certainly the music released on cd is not meant to be reproducible, nor is physically realizable of being so. What can someone who's familiar with the cd release expect from a current live performance?

DD: I'm not sure what you mean here. The music on the CDs was played live in real time. The performances are usually one hour of Sanctuary material (which is very different in each performance, but similar to the recording). Recently we've been adding a second set of new music that I've been writing for the group.

AAJ: As a composer/arranger, what have you learned from working with the improvisers that have participated in Sanctuary?

DD: Sanctuary was a way for me to get away from writing such difficult and virtuosic music. I wanted to have a piece that didn't involve so much learning, but more shaping of group improvisations. What I've learned from the many great players who have played Sanctuary is how delicate and hard that balance is to achieve, and to be prepared for anything.

On Future Projects

AAJ: are there any plans to continue live performance and/or record with: a) the Naguib Mahfousz project (with Ikue Mori—sampler, Jamie Saft—keyboards, Kenny Wollesen—drums)?

DD: That is a project I haven't had time to fully develop. I am continuing to work with electronic music , and the music for this project is still there; it may take a different form when I do it again.
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