Dave Douglas: There's Wisdom Everywhere in the Universe

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We're republishing this June 2013 in celebration of the 10 year anniversary of Dave Douglas's Greenleaf Music record label.

When All About Jazz last spoke with trumpeter, multi-bandleader, teacher, composer, marathon runner, podcaster, and record label head honcho Dave Douglas in November, 2011, he was in the Ukraine on the last leg of a tour with the French accordionist Richard Galliano. We spoke about his newest musical project, Sound Prints, a quintet with saxophonist Joe Lovano and drummer Joey Baron playing music inspired by and dedicated to [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter.

Simultaneously, Douglas was preparing for a week-long engagement at The Jazz Standard with three of his latest projects: the Dave Douglas Quintet, Brass Ecstasy, and a collaboration with the innovative new music group Sō Percussion. We also spoke about Douglas' recent work with KeyMotion, a plugged-in collaboration between Douglas' Keystone band and saxophonist Donny McCaslin's electric group, Perpetual Motion.

As of the Spring of 2013, all of these projects—with the notable exceptions of the Quintet and Sound Prints—have been placed on the backburner, and the Quintet has undergone significant personnel changes. Such is life on the cutting edge.

As the jazz world eagerly awaits Sound Prints' first recording, Douglas has released two new Quintet recordings: the beautifully transcendent Be Still (Greenleaf, 2012), and Time Travel (Greenleaf, 2013). A collaboration with vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, Be Still is a collection of American folk songs and hymns chosen by Douglas' mother, Emily (who died in 2011), rearranged and reinterpreted. Be Still is a truly remarkable album. The musicianship, as with all of Douglas' work, is second-to-none, and the music itself has a profound warmth and vulnerability that lingers. His latest release, Time Travel, is no less wonderful, but for totally different reasons. Here, Douglas returns to the world of hip and complex modern jazz, transformed and tempered perhaps by recent major life events including the decision to end his tenure as the director of the Jazz and Creative Music Programme at the Banff Centre, his mother's death, and his own 50th birthday. At the same time, Douglas has revived his Sextet—a project that had remained dormant since the early 2000s—and already has a recording in the can.

Douglas also remains an active musical collaborator. In the past couple of years, he's appeared on recordings by pianist Uri Caine, including Mahler—Caine: The Drummer Boy (Winter & Winter, 2011), and accordionist Guy KlucevsekThe Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova / Naxos, 2012). He's also overseen the reissue of two of his own early recordings, Magic Triangle / Leap of Faith (2012), and produced a dizzying array of recordings, including new releases by McCaslin, and bassists Matt Ullery, and Linda May Han Oh, all for his own label, Greenleaf Music. Via Greenleaf, Douglas not only sells CDs, DVDs, sheet music, and downloads of the label's music, he also maintains a keenly insightful blog (a must-read for every musician and fan) and a regular podcast series in which he converses with a broad swath of today's most important and energetic modern musicians. And there are T-shirts.

So, Dave Douglas is a busy, busy man. Warm, humorous, and thoughtful, he turns 50 this year and despite his inveterate busy-ness, he's still able to sit back and offer some valuable and chronologically appropriate reflections on music and life.

Dave Douglas: ...so, I was wondering what sort of software you're using to record our conversation. The reason I ask is because we're doing more podcasts and we've been recording some interviews on Skype.

Dave Douglas—Time TravelAll About Jazz: It's funny you mention that because I just listened to your podcast with [pianist] Matt Mitchell. It was really interesting because you're taking a real process-oriented approach when you discuss music. You're offering listeners a window into the inner workings of what it takes to write music, or produce a CD, or perform a show.

DD: Well, Matt's music is great, and not everybody knows it, and you get his perspective. The same is true of the conversation with [saxophonist] Henry Threadgill, and [guitarist] Miles Okazaki's episode, and [saxophonist] Jon Irabagon's. I am hoping more people will subscribe to and follow the whole series.

AAJ: ...those are all people who obviously have a lot to say. You're interviewing some fascinating musicians.

DD: Well, you can check them all out on iTunes, and if you want, you can leave a Twitter-length review. This is the sort of stuff that really helps get the word out on our podcasts. And they're free.

AAJ: So, the last time we spoke, you were in the Ukraine finishing up a tour with Richard Galliano playing [composer] Nino Rota's music. And you were about to hit in New York at the Jazz Standard with a new group—Sound Prints—with Joe Lovano and Joey Baron, playing the music of Wayne Shorter. The reason why I mention that is that I'd basically like to pick up where we left off. I know the last couple of years have had a lot of ups and downs for you... some really big events have happened in your life and in your music.

DD: Yeah, well, it's been a good time and a productive time. There's been a lot of changes, for me. One big thing is that, after 10 years directing the Jazz and Creative Music Programme at the Banff Center, I've decided to move on. The great young pianist, Vijay Iyer, has taken over as the director, and they're up there right now as a matter of fact. It's very inspiring to see that the program is going to continue and keep getting better and better. It was a bit of a hard thing for me to give up, because I loved the program so much. But I also felt like it was something I had learned how to do. So, I wasn't doing it as creatively anymore. It really needs to be an improvised situation, and I had started following a form, so to speak. I'm very proud of everything we did, and I'm especially proud of all the students whom I often encounter all around New York, and all around the world. They're all making really great music.

Another change is that, as I was going through the process of learning my mother's favorite hymns—she handed a list of them to me on a slip of paper—I met the vocalist Aoife O'Donovan. And so I put together a new band to play these hymns and arrangements of traditional American folk songs. And it reinvigorated my vision of what I wanted to do with the Quintet. Playing with the Quintet is home base for me, and it always has been even though I've played in many, many different contexts over the years. After having such a fantastic experience with Uri Caine, [drummer] Clarence Penn, Donny McCaslin, [bassist] James Genus, and [saxophonist] Chris Potter over a long number of years, I felt like I needed a new direction. And this new repertoire fit into my own composing and also my own vision of how I wanted to go forward in the Quintet format. As always, Wayne Shorter is a huge inspiration for me, and I cannot deny the influence of his current band on the way that I think about the Quintet. I see that influence in my own music quite a bit—I don't know if it's so apparent to others—but the importance of what Wayne's doing in this music cannot be overstated. So, I'd like to tip my hat to Wayne Shorter, to his influence...

And we made the CD, Be Still, last year. And that was a departure for me. It was a very lyrical record. I mean, it wasn't a departure in that it was a lyrical record. It was a departure in the sense that I had never worked with a vocalist before. And it really made me think about moving the arrangements and the energies around in different ways. And that led to this new record, which is called Time Travel, which celebrates both my 50th birthday, and the idea of looking forward and looking backward at the same time, at the music. It's about this journey we're all taking on this planet, through time. It's really fun to be out here touring with the band, as we attempt to play in all 50 states.

It's interesting, because I'm doing all sorts of different projects. Most of the tour is with the Quintet, but on some dates I'm playing with people who live in the different areas and some of it I'm doing smaller things, or bigger things. But I'm meeting a lot of people and really looking into what it would take to create some sort of network for jazz and creative music in this country.

AAJ: That's truly exciting because, even in my small town, there are some world-class players who've simply made the decision to live in Santa Fe, NM—for whatever reason—and not in New York, or Los Angeles, or the Bay Area, or Chicago...

DD: Well, maybe there's something to create there. Some of us New Yorkers can come out there and meet some of the musicians out there.

AAJ: The funny thing about Santa Fe is that it's sort of a vortex. People from all over are attracted to it, and they stay, and always for different reasons. It's a fascinating place...

DD: Oh, I love Santa Fe... I'd love to spend more time there for sure...

AAJ: So, getting back to Be Still... I was totally unfamiliar with Aoife O'Donovan. As a vocalist, she obviously comes from a non-jazz setting, but she fits in so perfectly.

DD: Aoife definitely works in a different neck of the woods, no pun intended, and you can check out her music online.

AAJ: So, where is she coming from, musically?

DD: She's a very experienced and very prolific vocalist and instrumentalist who spent a great deal of time co-leading a wonderful band called Crooked Still. They're just fantastic... almost a precursor to Punch Brothers, you might say. They're, perhaps, an alt-bluegrass band, for lack of a better term. It's quite a big scene, and one that I wasn't as aware of as I should have been. What led me to it was this idea of trying to bring traditional American folk music into the modern jazz world. Her music comes from the traditional side, and you'll hear her with [cellist] Yo-Yo Ma and [cellist] Edgar Meyer on the Goat Rodeo Sessions (Sony Masterworks, 2011), you'll hear her on Prairie Home Companion, if you listen to NPR...

AAJ: Oh yeah, that's my demographic [laughing]...

DD: [laughing] In June, she's releasing her first solo album [Fossils (Yep Roc, 2013)], and it's a really fantastic blend of singer/songwriter, popular music, bluegrass, and rock. So, she's not a jazz singer, although she went through the jazz program at the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied with [vocalist] Dominique Eade and all of those other wonderful musicians. She's an incredibly well-trained vocalist whose heart lies in her Irish heritage, and in traditional Irish folk music which is quite beautiful. And this may be a coincidence, or maybe not, but I think it might have been much harder for me to do an album of hymns with a so-called straight jazz singer. The idea that Aoife was coming from a place much closer to the point of origin of these tunes... the cultural overlays that have occurred through subsequent eras produced something that was quite touching for me. And I didn't see this at the time, but I think that this same sort of thing is happening with vocalists in jazz as well.

If you look at singers like Rebecca Martin, or Becca Stevens, or Gretchen Parlato or even, to some extent, Esperanza Spalding and—if you go back a few years—Cassandra Wilson. In fact, Cassandra may have been one of the first singers in this modern era to go back and really address traditional music. And that really appealed to me, because I really like to strip things down to the simplest elements and then build from there. Stripping things away to rebuild, that's always been my modus operandi.

And even with this new record there are a lot of complex ideas in there, but most of the tunes just take up a page or two. And even the most complicated ideas I try to boil down to their most simple essence so that they can be easily digested by both the players and the listeners. So, when we do take it into parallel time worlds [laughing] it's still something that the listener can relate to, and see how we got from Point A to Point B.

AAJ: Be Still is so directly emotional, but the really beautiful thing about that record was that every one of the players—Aoife especially—was able to be totally themselves even though the music seemed to exist between two separate worlds that don't usually intersect. But you got into something really profound there...

DD: It's not a pose that we're playing these hymns. We're not proselytizing for a religion, but we're not avoiding the spiritual content of the music. We're not taking an ironic stance, either. Like I said before, we're not posing with this music. The verses that we sang, and some of the verses that Aoife adapted, were all chosen by my mom. That's what she wanted us to play at her service. She chose them. And they're all these universal spiritual tunes that are very uplifting. People have come up to me to tell me that this record got them through some difficult times.

The other thing that people say is "I'm so sorry about your mom." And that's nice, but it's not that sort of album either. It's not elegiac or sorrowful at all. It's uplifting. The message that my mom came to, in the end, was "Now I'm moving on to a different place, and I'll see you there." It was not "I am going to miss you so much." It was more along the lines of "This is great, let's have a celebration, just like we did when you were born." And that's reflected in the songs she chose for us to play. It was very, very powerful. And I definitely shed some tears during the making of this record, but they weren't tears of sorrow... they were tears of joy.

AAJ: Well that was quite palpable in the music. I've got to thank you for making that record.

DD: Well, thank you. I'm very proud of it. And now it's being issued as an LP on heavyweight vinyl, and it sounds incredibly gorgeous. The whole package is really beautiful, with the artwork and all. I see Time Travel as a companion piece. It's the same musicians, but we're playing original music and taking it in different directions.

There's one more thing I'd like to mention about Aoife. You'll notice that a lot of the contexts in which she has to sing are quite harmonically challenging and rich. And some of her entrances are really, really difficult. You really have to know what's going on to come in with a vocal entrance on a very interesting note [laughs] in the middle of a musical phrase with Matt Mitchell improvising all these wild harmonies all around you. She really hung with us on the highest musical level. It wasn't like we were bringing a "singer" into the band. It was like having another musician in the band. And we've done a bunch of live shows with her and she's constantly operating at the highest musical level.

AAJ: That's certainly apparent throughout Be Still. It's highly listenable and very approachable music, yet it's not "dumbed down" at all to accommodate the material or Aoife. You guys are all playing at a very high level throughout the record with no sense of compromise and a very high degree of ease. No one had to change what they were doing to accommodate Aoife, or vice versa. That's really the beauty of it...

DD: Well, I would say that we all changed, but we all changed in ways that we wanted to change in... [laughs]

AAJ: [laughing] Okay, I'll buy that. I was thinking about [drummer] Rudy Royston in particular, because I know he's played a lot of gospel music in the church...

DD: That's interesting. Yes, you're right, as a matter of fact Rudy was already quite familiar with a number of the tunes. And so was [bassist] Linda May Han Oh. She's got a strong church background, and has done a lot of gospel music as well. And, it was funny, when we got started on these tunes, they would look at each other and say; "You know, Dave, that's not really how this hymn is played. Here's the tempo, and here's how the beat is supposed to go..." And that was interesting to me because I had heard these hymns as a child, and then never again since. So I was coming to them as pieces of music. But they're part of a living tradition to Rudy and Linda, who were both still playing these hymns every Sunday, and sometimes on Wednesday nights [laughs]. So, I wouldn't say that we then adapted the arrangements to be more like what they were playing in church, it was more cooperative. It's as if you had to play "All The Things You Are" without ever having heard it. You would play the tune, but you'd do it differently. And then if you went to a jam session and played it like that, people would show you how it was actually played. And then, perhaps together, you all came up with a third way to play the tune that was richer.

AAJ: The new record represents a different facet of the same band. And the pieces are easy to get into, but there's a lot of super-advanced things going on within them. And the playing, again, is marvelous. How long are you going to be able to keep this band together?

DD: Well, I'll hold on to them as long as I can; they're all great and they're all busy. We have quite a few dates coming up and I'm writing new material and we'll continue to work together. One of the most amazing things about New York, at this moment, is that there are more players than ever playing at the very highest levels. And I've had young subs already in this band at gigs, and there's absolutely no compromise whatsoever. It's just amazing. So, I'll keep this band together as long as I can, but I also have faith that there's never going to be a shortage of people that I want to play with.

So, Matt is busy with [saxophonist] Tim Berne and others, Linda has all kinds of things going on including leading her own band, Rudy's playing with [bassist] Ben Allison and [guitarist] Bill Frisell... I probably don't need to tell you how busy Jon Irabagon is. He's running a record label, and playing with [trumpeter] Peter Evans, and who knows what else he's doing. I'm trying to keep them together, and I just love playing with them. It's an incredible feeling...

AAJ: And now you have a cover feature in the latest issue of Downbeat Magazine in honor of your 50th birthday. I found the interview with you to be fascinating, especially when you spoke about your own struggles getting started as a jazz player. Hearing about you going through music school only to be told that you'll never be any good at playing the trumpet...

DD: It's important to let people know that you've gone through these struggles.

AAJ: Just the fact that you got past that and succeeded...

DD: ...only to play a lot of weddings, and Bar Mitzvahs, and brisses, and divorces... [laughing]

I was in Reno, Nevada last month, where they have those 24-hour wedding chapels, and someone was telling me that the new trend there was late-night divorce. And I was thinking that could be a whole new industry for musicians. I've got a great divorce band! [laughing] What would we play? "I'll be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You," "Lyin' Eyes..." [laughing]

AAJ: "Your Cheatin' Heart..." [laughing]

DD: That's it, you've got the schtick! So, I've also made a new record... do you remember those sextet records I made in the '90s? In Our Lifetime (New World, 1995), Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997), Soul On Soul (RCA, 2000)...

AAJ: ...the [pianist] Mary Lou Williams tribute record! That's a good one.

DD: So, I've been doing a series of independent workshops leading groups of musicians through sessions reading that music. Just independently, getting the word out, having people sign up, and we go through the music. That's been really great. So, I'm doing a concert next week where the first half is the workshop people playing that music, and the second half is the Quintet. And that's something I'll continue to do. But in the meantime, I've written a new book of music for sextet which I've recorded with most of the same folks that were on the Sextet records from the '90s; Greg Tardy is on tenor saxophone, Josh Roseman is on trombone, and I've brought in Uri Caine on piano, and Clarence Penn on drums, with Linda Oh on bass. It's a mix, for me. The record is my farewell to Banff, and the music was written for my final concert there. The piece is called Pathways and it's based on some of the materials I worked with while I was teaching there. And it's going to come out in the Fall as part of a deluxe package consisting of Be Still, Time Travel, and Pathways, plus a number of alternate takes From all three sessions and a DVD of in-studio performances. For me, bringing all that together is the summation of my 50th birthday year. It's going to be a beautiful package, and because it's my label, I'm gonna be humane to my fans. So if you already have Be Still and Time Travel, you can order just the additional elements of the box without having to order duplicate copies of the records you already have. Unless you want to, of course. [laughs] They make great presents... great divorce presents! [laughs] So, I'm finishing all that up, mastering those recordings and getting all of that together. Who knows where we go from here?

AAJ: Maybe you could fill us in a bit more on what Banff is and what it means to you...

DD: Oh sure. The Banff Centre for the Arts is about two hours west of Calgary, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies. It's a great musical facility where, for the last 35 years, there's been a jazz and creative music program that lasts for three weeks. It was directed by [bassist] Dave Holland at its inception, and various others such as [saxophonist] Steve Coleman, [pianist] Kenny Werner, and [trombonist] Hugh Fraser have also directed it. And in 2002, I was offered the directorship, so I took it over for ten years and invited all of my favorite musicians to come up and teach. And I'm not going to name names, but almost anyone you can think of came up for a week to teach. So, now Vijay Iyer is directing it, and this week he's got Esperanza Spalding, Ravi Coltrane, [trumpeter] Ambrose Akinmusire, [trumpeter] Wadada Leo Smith, [drummer] Tyshawn Sorey, and [saxophonist] Hafez Modirzadeh... it's a great program and a lot of young musicians know about it.

AAJ: I'd heard of it, but wasn't sure if everyone else had...

DD: ...and another thing I've got going on is Sound Prints which I co-lead with Joe Lovano. It's Lawrence Fields on piano, Linda Oh on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. We've been doing this for about a year, or a year-and-a-half. And it definitely takes off on the inspiration of the life and work of Wayne Shorter, but we decided to celebrate that by writing original music. So each of us wrote a set of special pieces dedicated to that idea. It's really a unit now, and we've toured enough that it's really come together. Joe is one the most inspiring people in music, and I feel like—when I'm on stage with him—he makes me play better. It's just like playing with [saxophonist] John Zorn all those years... he lifted me, too.

Joey Baron is one of my favorite musicians of all time, it's really a privilege writing music for him, just an incredible opportunity. We'll be playing a fair number of concerts this summer, celebrating Wayne Shorter's 80th birthday. It's a triple bill of us, a trio with pianist Geri Allen, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and [drummer] Terri Lyne Carrington, and Wayne Shorter's Quartet. We'll be doing this at Town Hall in New York, at the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Hollywood Bowl, and a few other places. It's just such a thrill... it's one more incredible place that the music has brought me, and I'm grateful every day for this gift.

AAJ: That sounds like a truly amazing concert... One last question I wanted to ask you was about John Zorn. In the Downbeat interview, you mention that he asked you to play a solo in the style of [trumpeter] Tony Fruscella. I thought that was so perfect...

DD: ...you mean that he would say that?

AAJ: Yes! And your response was... well you were horrified. And I really understood that. I mean, a jazz artist owns a solo. It's your solo. How dare you tell me to play like someone else...

DD: Well, I learned, then, to do it differently...

AAJ: Yes, and that's what was great. You went 180 degrees the other way and you made it work, and it made you a better musician.

DD: It's really important for young musicians, and really for just anyone. To put it another way: Who am I to tell anyone else what to do in their music? Being open-minded is really important, and being open-minded means that you are aware that you may not have all the answers. What someone says to you, even if it seems like bullshit, is worth thinking about and checking out. There's wisdom everywhere in the universe.

AAJ: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

DD: I'd just like to encourage people to check out the music, the free podcasts, the T-shirts, the sheet music and the other stuff at greenleafmusic.com

AAJ: It's a real meaty website, that's for sure. Those podcasts are great... really substantial and thoughtful...

DD: Well, I'm a voracious podcast listener. And not just music. Politics and culture, and the arts... it's become an interesting way to encounter information. And you don't have to sit there and memorize it all or take notes like you're in school or something. It's a way that so many in the world now are sharing their interests. It's a wonderful thing and I really wanted to do it in my own way.

Selected Discography

Dave Douglas Quintet, Time Travel (Greenleaf Music, 2013)

Dave Douglas Quintet with Aoife O'Donovan, Be Still (Greenleaf Music, 2012)

Dave Douglas Quartet, Magic Triangle / Leap of Faith (Greenleaf Music, 2012)

Uri Caine Ensemble, Mahler—Caine: The Drummer Boy (Winter & Winter, 2011)

Guy Klucevsek, The Multiple Personality Reunion Tour (Innova /Naxos, 2012)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Dave Douglas

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