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"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."
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.