Dave Douglas: No Labels, No Compromises

John Kelman By

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I am really wary of genre names...that's what we've been fighting against doing to people for hundreds of years, so I just don't feel like we should be doing that to music.
—Dave Douglas
Trumpeter/composer/bandleader Dave Douglas has managed what few other jazz artists have; to be associated with and widely promoted by a major record company, creating a diverse body of work that is completely without compromise, at a time when most are looking for the next Diana Krall or Norah Jones. In the past five years Douglas has released seven albums that range from A Thousand Evenings , with his Charms of the Night Sky band, to the denser large-ensemble work, Witness. His latest release, Strange Liberation, reunites the quintet that produced '02's The Infinite, adding Bill Frisell to the mix to take things in a different direction.

While critics attempt to categorize Douglas' work as ranging from the Eastern European folk-informed Tiny Bell Trio to electronica with his Freak In project, Douglas steadfastly avoids the use of labels. "I am really wary of genre names," says Douglas. "I feel like when we get into saying, for example, that there's more blues on Strange Liberation we get on a really slippery slope to defining what the blues is and then taking it further and saying, "OK, is this more black or white?" And that's what we've been fighting against doing to people for hundreds of years, so I just don't feel like we should be doing that to music."

Musical Contexts

Douglas' name is synonymous with musical diversity and unusual instrumental contexts; in addition, he works almost exclusively with small ensembles. "I like music," Douglas explains, "where you get to hear everyone's personality, so that's why most of my groups are kept pretty small; because I feel like when there are too many people everyone has to rein it in a lot more to have things make sense.

"I try to come up with new sounds," Douglas continues, "to try to escape the traps of standard, for lack of a better word, jazz instrumentation. With The Tiny Bell Trio Brad Shepik is the kind of guitarist who can cover bass parts, chord parts and melodies all at once and it forced me, as a trumpet player, to think differently; to gravitate, for example, towards playing bass lines. And I think it really opened things up for Jim Black too, especially in the area of the bass drum, supporting the sound of the band in a way that he wouldn't have to if there were a bassist, an organ player or some other low instrument. I like those kinds of challenges."

Sometimes a single musician or a single instrument can motivate Douglas to put together a new project. "With the Charms of the Night Sky band," Douglas says, "Guy Klucevsek was the whole reason I started the thing in the first place, hearing him at a solo show. I had played quite a bit, some years before that, with an accordion player and then drifted out of it; hearing Guy just opened my mind to what was possible. Violinist Mark Feldman and I already had a history of playing together and writing for each other; and meeting bassist Greg Cohen in Masada was the step that made me feel like I could do the whole thing, because he's such a solid player, having played singer/songwriter music, pop music, Dixieland, Avant-Garde and modern jazz. Everyone in the group had a lot of responsibility, with there being no drummer; it forced all of us to think as rhythm section players as we were playing melodies and chord parts. And Greg was somebody who could understand the different roles that were required and be himself within all of them."

Douglas' first released project as a leader was his revolutionary string group, with Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander, bassist Mark Dresser (later Drew Gress) and drummer Michael Sarin. Friedlander's inclusion was, as it turns out, a happy accident, when he was called in to substitute for the trombonist at their first gig. "It was going to be trumpet, trombone, violin, bass and drums," describes Douglas. "But after the first gig with Erik, listening to the tapes, I realized it was a string group; but it wouldn't have worked unless Erik, Mark Feldman and Mark Dresser were superb improvisers; it wasn't about, 'OK, let me get a cello and a violin,' it was really about, for lack of a better word, a jazz approach."

Musical Choices

With the cream of the New York musical crop at his disposal, Douglas has specific criteria in choosing musicians for his projects. "Musical personalities, of course," explains Douglas. "But I think it also comes down to what kinds of challenges I want to get at with the music I'm writing, and then how much each person will be able to rise to the challenge or present new challenges. How much are they going to be open to doing something they never did before? How hard is it going to be for them to do that? And then how much fun are we going to have doing it? If it's just going to be a drag and it's going to be really hard for somebody, I wouldn't try to put anyone through that.

"But that said," Douglas continues, "I have the idea for the project in my mind, then I pick the musicians and then I write the music. So it's kind of like a chicken and egg conundrum because, for example, I already knew Joey Baron was going to play with the sextet before I wrote the first book of music, In Our Lifetime ; but I picked Joey to be in the group knowing what kind of thing I wanted to write. I definitely have to know who I'm writing for before I begin writing a new project, a new book of music."

The Quintet and Strange Liberation

Douglas has always made his projects going concerns rather than one-off events. The string group made three albums over a period of seven years; the Charms of the Night Sky band two albums to date; the Tiny Bell Trio four albums; and his sextet three albums. The release of Strange Liberation marks the second album for Douglas' quintet, consisting of saxophonist Chris Potter, Uri Caine on Fender Rhodes, bassist James Genus and drummer Clarence Penn. While the group's first release, The Infinite , was perceived as expanding on the transitional fusion of Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro, Douglas feels otherwise. "I don't see The Infinite as being a take-off on anything," states Douglas. "It certainly started with the instrumentation of the early '70s Miles Davis Quintet, but I just don't hear it that way. I heard the criticisms, but I think we're doing our own thing, everyone's a unique individual. I wasn't afraid to say, in the liner notes, 'An infinite thank you to Miles Davis,' because he's one of my biggest heroes and it would be wrong not to acknowledge that, but I feel like 'damn the torpedoes,' I'm going to take off from there. Some people feel like they should take off from '55 Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; some people feel like they should take off from Albert Ayler's Love Cry. To me it doesn't matter where you start as long as you end up doing your own thing."

Touring with the quintet for the past two years has brought an increased maturity and an evolution to the unique musical vocabulary of the group. "I also feel," says Douglas, "that bringing in Bill [Frisell] for Strange Liberation took the group experience to a new and unique place; that the way Bill plays has a big degree of say in what the record sounds like. When I wrote the music I was definitely thinking of Bill, what he's been doing and what he did years ago that really fired my imagination when I first moved to New York. I also thought about how he would play with the other guys in the group; how he and Uri would hook up; the fact that Uri was playing a Fender Rhodes lent a certain fluidity to the sound. And the fact that both James and Clarence talk about how much they love Bill; it wasn't like I brought in this crazy guy and forced it on them; everybody was really excited to make this happen."

Musical Freedom: Recording Strange Liberation

Giving the group members as much freedom as possible is of paramount consideration for Douglas. "None of the charts are longer than three pages," Douglas explains, "most are only one or two pages. Sometimes I'll write down a specific voicing, if I feel it's really important, but my rule of thumb is to put as little as possible on the page in terms of notes and do as much as possible with a verbal discussion and description of what I'm looking for; to let people find their own way with the material.

"The kind of thing I'll do as we're first rehearsing the music," continues Douglas, "is we'll read it down, and then I'll say, 'OK, let's play it this way,' and we'll do it again. 'Now let's play it with such-and-such an instrument in the melody,' and then, 'I want you to use these voicings,' and then, 'Now let's play it again and there'll be a drum solo but the bass will be out but the keyboards and horns will be in,' things like that. So we may read through one page of music but do it a dozen different ways. Then, over time, we'll create a form based on the different approaches."

Remarkably, for all the work that goes into shaping the material, there is precious little rehearsal. "We did one rehearsal for Strange Liberation ," Douglas says, "and Bill wasn't there. We had two days with Bill in the studio, and on the first day we played everything; I think I had about fifteen tunes, and we read through everything. Then I went home, listened through and made cuts and changes to the arrangements. I fiddle around with the arrangements a lot in the studio, so each take will be slightly different; moving things around, changing the introduction, the order of the solos, the very idea of solos, and I often do it overnight. Then I get up early in the morning and suddenly everything is very clear; 'Oh, this is why this piece is ten minutes long and it should only be seven minutes long, and here's where the fat is,' so I trim it out. Pretty much everything on the record is from the second day, and either a first or second take. Everybody had a night to sleep with the material, so we came in and all I had to do was say, 'Remember how we did it this way? Now we're going to do this ,' and then we'd do one or two takes and we'd be done."

A third day was reserved for "Seventeen" and "Passing Through," tunes that did not include Frisell. Once the recording is complete, however, Douglas then prefers to distance himself from it. "The first thing that happens," explains Douglas, "is I put it in the bottom of a drawer for preferably a month; I don't listen to it at all. I just go on to the next project, which is usually some kind of tour or some other thing. And then I'll come back and start winnowing through, deciding which tracks should be mixed and if there's any editing to be done. There are only one or two edits on Strange Liberation ; I used to be manic about edits, and I would really painstakingly cut things together. Now, I find I do that less and less."

The Next Project

These days Douglas is learning ProTools, the industry standard for digital recording and editing, for his next recording project, a follow-up to '03's Freak In. "After I did that record," says Douglas, "I realized that I really should have my hands more in the pie." And while Freak In has been labelled as an electronica record, what differentiates it is the propensity for real-time playing. "To be interesting to me," continues Douglas, "it still has to be about real playing. I'm very happy with the way Freak In came out, but I don't think it's an electronica record at all. I think what happens in electronica very often, and even electronica-meets-jazz records, is that everything is on the basis of a loop, and that's anathema to me, to the idea of people making music together. I'm not anti-loop, it's just that the way I often hear them used is as a wallpaper over which something else can be layered, and that doesn't really turn me on.

"I'm working with the process quite a bit," continues Douglas. "I feel like I'm doing a lot of pre-production, working with ideas, and more electronics; but the backbone of the album will still be live sessions that have yet to occur. A lot of the work for me, at this stage, is envisioning how that will happen; the best way to tie in the band. I'm working with Gene Lake on drums, DJ Olive, Jamie Saft on keyboards, bassist Brad Jones and this great young tenor player named Marcus Strickland. We're doing a tour this summer, and I'm going to record some material before the tour and some afterwards and see what happens."

Mountain Passages

Douglas' career has been characterized by diversity and jumping between musical opposites. In direct contrast to his more electric work with the quintet and Freak In projects, there's his Mountain Passages Group. "I was commissioned," explains Douglas, "to write these pieces to be played on the top of Dolomite mountains, and it caused me to think a lot about what mountain music is, and to listen to it quite a bit. I ended up writing these pieces for trumpet, clarinet, tuba, cello and percussion. These are all instruments that can be carried up to the top of a mountain and that's what we did last summer. The weirdest and most wonderful gig I've ever done in my life was taking a funicular up to about ten thousand feet, and then hiking about three hours from there with all our instruments, and then getting to the top, this mountainous, rocky crag. There were a thousand people, who'd hiked up to see this, and we played all this music; I wrote twelve pieces to be played by that ensemble.

"Actually," Douglas continues, "we'll be playing them at the Vancouver Jazz Festival this coming June. Unfortunately not from the top of a mountain, but at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, against my better judgement; but I'll be able to record it while I'm there. Michael Moore is the clarinetist, Dylan van der Schyff on percussion, Peggy Lee on cello, and Marcus Rojas on tuba."

Music and Social Conscience

Another characteristic of Douglas' music is that it often stems from political or social events. Witness , for example, stemmed from thoughts about war, poverty and unilateral political action. Still, while the music has such concepts as inspiration, Douglas is careful to clarify that it has no overt social conscience. "Not the music itself, thank God," says Douglas. "Music exists in its own space, independent of all of that, and I think that's why it has such power to uplift and raise us to a better place as humans; because music doesn't play favourites, doesn't have emotions; it's just a thing, it's just there in the air. And you can't ignore it. I was talking, the other day, to someone who was making a point about this period of abstract expressionist painting —I hate using terms like that, so let's just say modern painting that developed in the United States after World War II—Jackson Pollack and Jasper Johns, and how they were so close to composers like Morton Feldman and John Cage.

"Nowadays," Douglas continues, "those painters are household names; they sell out shows at the Metropolitan Museum. Everyone knows who Jackson Pollack is, and you may go to the exhibit and say, 'my five year-old son could do better than that,' but at the same time there is a general acknowledgement that this is important stuff, and a lot of people want to go see it; whereas if there were a concert of Morton Feldman music, chances are ten people would come and at the end there would be two left. With painting you can ignore it, it doesn't envelope all your sense, whereas music, you put it on and it's in your face. I think a record like Witness , right from the first track, it's kind of like, 'you're either with us or you're against us; this is what we believe,' and it's not just me writing a political statement, but the nature of the music itself is a part of what I believe about the world and about action and doing something.

"If, as an artist, I have any conscience at all," Douglas concludes, "it's about the way I treat my fellow musicians, it's about how I include them in the process. Maybe that's enough of a model for society; an example of how people can work together and collaborate, rather than there always being a fatherly figure who leads the troops into battle in remote parts of the world and monopolizes all our natural resources at the expense of education and other important things."

Working With The Majors

Such strong personal convictions affect all aspects of Douglas' life and art. Most remarkable is that he maintains a successful working relationship with a major label who is lending strong support to all his efforts. "That just comes down," says Douglas, "to what you're willing to accept when you sign an agreement with someone. I was very careful, when I signed with RCA, to let them know that I was only interested in doing what I wanted to do; you just decide that's what you want in your life and your art. That hasn't been the difficult part. I have to say I'm surprised to still be there, but they're supporting this latest record like crazy, and it's great and I have to give it up to them. It's the result of a few very courageous people in pretty high positions that are willing to put their necks on the line and support me."

Still, with the major upheaval going on in the recording industry, Douglas sees the possibility that things could change. "I may move on," Douglas explains. "I have fulfilled all my obligations so now I have to make a decision as to whether this is an arrangement that I'm still happy with, or do I want to move on, start my own label, do something else. With the recording industry going through enormous changes that may be something I decide to do. I think it's great that people are moving towards more independent models, that's what gave me a career in the first place, recording for independents."

The Future

Regardless of Douglas' future business arrangements, one thing is certain; Douglas will continue putting together projects that reflect a diversity of artistic and life interests. With twenty-one recordings as a leader in the past twelve years constituting twelve different projects, and upcoming collaborative efforts with artists including Louis Sclavis and Steve Lacy, Douglas is clearly one of the most forward-thinking artists in improvised music today. With a style so rich that it challenges categorization; so broad that it makes a strong argument for the elimination of labels, it is no surprise that Douglas regularly wins top honours in critic and reader polls. By defying conformity and the need for compromise, Dave Douglas will unquestionably continue to be one of the most important artists in modern music.

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