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Dave Douglas: From Revolution to Revelation

Ludovico Granvassu By

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Each person's revolution is a personal revelation. That's the thing that we try to get to, day after day, in this music.
A bird's eye view of the artistic path carved over the years by Dave Douglas reveals both the density and the breadth of his interests. Like tributaries flowing through a complex maze into a sprawling lake, each one of his countless projects explores a different sonic aspect of contemporary music. Yet, they all move towards a common destination and are pushed by a single force, the quest for a personal synthesis that creates unity out of diversity. Ever the tireless explorer, Dave Douglas can be found rambling in the wide-open spaces created by The Westerlies (Little Giant Still Life -2017, Greenleaf Music) just a few months after rattling down the canyons of sound created by producer and beat maker Shigeto (Dark Territory -2016, Greenleaf Music) or taking a time machine to bring back artifacts from the Middle Ages (Fabliaux -2015, Greenleaf Music).

At regular intervals, Douglas' discography, however, pays tribute to masters like Wayne Shorter in Stargazer (1997, Arabesque) and Sound Prints, his collaborative project with Joe Lovano (2015, Blue Note), Booker Little in In Our Lifetime (1995, New World) or Mary Lou Williams in Soul on Soul (2000, RCA Victor). In these projects Douglas finds both an opportunity to play compositions he loves and the possibility to draw inspiration from the spirit of artists who, like him, pushed the envelope of jazz in their own times and ways. We reached out to Dave Douglas to talk about his latest endeavors: the upcoming tribute to the music of Dizzy Gillespie, "Dizzy's Atmosphere," which he is about to premiere at Jazz at Lincoln Center with Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton, Bill Frisell, Linda May Han Oh and Joey Baron; and Scandal, the second release of the Sound Prints project with Joe Lovano.

To listen to the music of Scandal as well as to excerpts of this interview play the archived podcast of Mondo Jazz (starting at 8:05).

All About Jazz: How did the Dizzy's Atmosphere project come about? The line up is stellar, how did you choose the other musicians for this project?

Dave Douglas: The five musicians who will be joining me, Ambrose Akinmusire, Gerald Clayton, Bill Frisell, Linda May Han Oh and Joey Baron, are the first people I thought of when I started working on this project. In re-imagining the music of Dizzy Gillespie, and also creating new compositions, I wanted to be side by side with another trumpet player. I feel a kinship with Ambrose Akinmusire. The feeling that I get from listening to Ambrose's music is that he is coming at it just purely from wanting to say something personal and of his own, and I really appreciate that. It's where I've always been coming from. More than anything else, I'm really looking forward to hearing the different ways that he and I will approach the music as trumpet players. I am equally excited to hear Bill Frisell and Gerald Clayton playing this music and to perform with Linda May Han Oh and Joey Baron. They're musicians who I love to interact with.

AAJ: February seems to have become Dave Douglas' month at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Last year you brought there "Metamorphosis." This year "Dizzy's Atmosphere." Last year you played there with Wadada Leo Smith. This year you'll be with Ambrose Akinmusire. Is this partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center a platform to continue the championing of jazz trumpet which you have carried out, for instance, through the Festival of New Trumpet Music?

DD: The collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center has been a wonderful surprise. It has been an open invitation to do some exploratory work in a setting that is unlike any other setting in New York, or anywhere else around the world. It has allowed me to envision some different kinds of groups, especially this year. This project is part of the celebration of Dizzy Gillespie for jazz at Lincoln Center.

Over a number of years Jazz at Lincoln Center has been opening up to different kinds of sounds and to new kinds of contributions to the canon of jazz music. I'm grateful to be a small part of that. Besides "Dizzy's Atmosphere," it has allowed me to play there with Joe Lovano for the Sound Prints project, but also to teach a composition class at the Julliard jazz program and to host the Festival of New Trumpet Music at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola for the past several years. So I'm very happy to be on that part of Manhattan island more often than I have ever been in the past [laughs].

As far as Wadada and Ambrose are concerned, these are musicians that I love. I have not invited them because they play the trumpet, even though, as I continue to write and play, I do certainly appreciate other people who are applying this instrument in a different way than I have in the past.

AAJ: You are a progressive musician, very forward looking. Over the years you've been carving a very personal path. What is it that inspires you when you revisit the music of masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams or Booker Little?

DD: That music is very much alive for me. When I play it, it's a way for me to say "I'm so in love with this music. Let me get as close to it as I can and see if I can tell somebody else why they should love it as much as I do!" My way of doing that is to focus on my feelings about that music, and put them through a prism. When I played the repertoire of Mary Lou Williams, I wrote some arrangements of her pieces as well as a number of originals after having spent time thinking about the way she used melody, harmony, rhythm, improvisation, timbre, density, and about the different phases of her life. I tried as best as I could to understand what she went through to get to that music. In the case of "Dizzy's Atmosphere" my starting point was asking myself "We're in 2018. Why is it important that we continue to try to understand Dizzy Gillespie and to listen to his compositions? What is it about that music that is so special? How can we contribute something of our own to it in order to keep that vision alive?"

AAJ: So, in a way, you are looking at these masters of the past as examples of forward-looking artists to draw an inspiration from, not only in terms of repertoire but, more importantly, in terms of vision and attitude?

DD: All of these artists were visionaries, progressives, at the very forefront of their field. So I don't feel like I'm looking back. I feel like I'm looking at something that's very contemporary. Each person's revolution is a personal revelation. That's the thing that we try to get to, day after day, in this music. Take Italian pianist Franco D'Andrea, for instance. He's older than me, but when I play with him I feel like I'm playing with someone who is as revolutionary as any other true artist I play with.

Going back to Dizzy Gillespie, how can you look at Dizzy's life without thinking that there was a social impact, an awareness around his work and comparing that with the environment in which we are operating now. We are making choices about what is going to happen to our planet and to vulnerable communities. Choices about how we are going to valorize culture and the humanities as we go forward as a species. I think those things are the reason that music and the arts exist and I don't see any project that I do as being any more or less socially conscious on that level. A good improvising group of musicians is the perfect model of how society can work. We come up as improvisers learning that we have to figure out how to work together. We all come into it with our different visions of what a good sound is and what procedures should be and what the end result would be, but we learn to collaborate and work together towards a common result that is good. And I think that that's what we should hope our leaders can learn to do as well.

AAJ: Why did you choose the subtitle "Dizzy Gillespie at Zero Gravity" for "Dizzy's Atmosphere"?

DD: Wayne Shorter has been a guiding star for me over many years. "Zero Gravity" is the term that he has been using to talk about his music and his approach. I can't presume to sit here and tell you that I have the complete understanding of what that means. I see it as a metaphor. It's a way of thinking about making music, which you can hear in Wayne and his amazing playing with his band; now more then ever they're playing with so much freedom... I hope to be able to do the same when we'll play "Dazzy's Atmosphere" and that we will not be holding onto anything, that we'll be playing this music with an incredible sense of freedom, fearlessness, without grasping on anything, being completely naked and vulnerable, putting the music out there.

AAJ: How are you going to approach Dizzy's repertoire for this project?

DD: I didn't want to take a masterpiece like "Manteca" and just play it the way Dizzy Gillespie played it in 1957 at Newport, for example, which is my favorite recording of it. I feel that there's still a lot more that can be done with it. And so I'm trying to open up the bonds of the music and let these great improvisers that play with me find some new paths in there... in zero gravity.

AAJ: Speaking of Wayne Shorter, you are about to release the second chapter of Sound Prints, the band dedicated to his music that you co-lead with Joe Lovano. How will the new album, Scandal (Greenleaf Music), differ from Sound Prints: Live at Monterey Jazz Festival (Blue Note -2015)?

DD: The first Sound Prints album was recorded live at the Monterey Jazz Festival. We had two commissioned new works from Wayne Shorter that we were playing on that record. For Scandal we wanted to document all the experiences that we've had on the road playing that music together. So Joe and I each brought to the session five compositions and we each made an arrangement of a Blue-Note-era Wayne Shorter tune. I made a new arrangement of "Fee Fi Fo Fum" and Joe made an arrangement of "JuJu." You can hear that it's clearly the same band, but I think it's also taking several steps forward and it has become our statement about Wayne and his music, and perhaps also about the state of music now.

Photo credit: Roberto Cifarelli

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