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Dave Douglas: Keeping His Eye on the Ball

Tom Greenland By

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Dave Douglas isn't one to sit around watching paint dry. Since 1994, he's made 25 recordings as bandleader/composer, collaborated with a Who's Who roster of jazz "names (uptown and Downtown) and garnered seven straight wins as Downbeat's "Jazz Trumpeter of the Year, two Grammy nominations, a Guggenheim fellowship and the artistic directorship of the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. Douglas is also a primary force behind the Festival of New Trumpet (FONT), a celebration of the instrument taking place at multiple venues throughout the city until mid-October.

Listening to Douglas' oeuvre, one is immediately impressed with the scope and scale of his vision. Douglas explains: "I really admire people who stick with one thing and keep doing that year after year and going deeper and deeper into it, because there's a real strength in that, but it's just not who I am. Asked about his modus "boperandi for generating new ideas, he states: "I tend to write in blocks of pieces, a block of maybe an hour-and-a-half, two hours of material based on a certain idea or theme or technique [or] strategy. And so a lot of how I keep myself from repeating myself—and from feeling like I'm in a box or getting writer's block—is by really spending a lot of time thinking about the themes and the overall approach that I want to go for. Every record I've made is the result of that kind of process.

For example, to create original material for Soul on Soul (RCA Victor, 2000), a tribute to pianist Mary Lou Williams, Douglas asked himself what Williams meant to him, what relevance she had in the 21st century and, most importantly, what music could he write that effectively "answered both questions. Many of Douglas' albums followed the same process, albeit with different subjects: Booker Little for In Our Lifetime (New World, 1994), silent film star "Fatty Arbuckle on Keystone (Greenleaf, 2005) and Balkan brass bands (music written for and adapted by the Tiny Bell Trio). Douglas' "string group recordings—Five (Soul Note, 1995), Charms of the Night Sky (Winter&Winter, 1998), Convergence (Soul Note, 1999), A Thousand Evenings (RCA, 2000) and El Trilogy (RCA, 2001)—on the other hand, could be called "Middle-Eastern-European free-ish, dabbling in ethnic folk musics, Western European classical compositional structures (e.g. 12-tone rows) and unusual improvisational paradigms informed and expanded by Douglas' Downtown sensibilities. Freak In (RCA, 2003) and Keystone, on the other hand, evinced an interest in eclectic electronica.

Interestingly, of all his projects, Douglas finds writing for his quintet to be the most challenging: "Starting that band was like saying to myself, 'Okay, you're going to write just tunes, for a jazz group; you're just going to play the tunes.' And that's something that I have not done on a lot of other projects. A lot of my things before that [had] very specific instrumentation and personalities and very unusual instrumentations or unusual ways of organizing the material or different ways of trying to work with improvisation with the composition. And in this one I really feel like I try to write a book of tunes.

Thomas Edison's pithy epithet, that inspiration is 99% perspiration, seems to hold true for Douglas the composer: "[E]very single time it's a painstaking process! [laughs] It doesn't matter what theme you pick, or what goals you set for yourself...composing is always somewhat agonizing and challenging. And I get the sense that that's the only way to come up with something real, something honest: is to go to that place where you're really challenging yourself to go past your own bullshit and your own limitations, and go past the easy answer, go past the things that you've written before, go past the things that other people have written before, and to do your best to do that every day, out there, as a writer. It's a challenge.


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