Dominic Duval: Follow Your Melody

Maxim Micheliov By

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A good song is hard to find. If you find one you like--sing it!
In memory of Dominic Duval: 1945-2016. This article was first published in October 2010.

Bassist Dominic Duval is a mystery to many—even to those interested in free music. Seemingly emerging out of nowhere in the mid-1990s, over the course of 15 years he has built a formidable discography, firmly establishing him as one of the most original and prolific bassists alive today.

His career is well-documented on more than one hundred recordings, including collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Joe McPhee, Mark Whitecage, Ivo Perelman, Jimmy Halperin, and many others. Duval's solo recording, Nightbird Invention (Cadence, 1997), added new colors to the sonic palette of double-bass, while his work for string quartet erases the thin border between modern jazz and chamber music.

As a part of Trio X, Dominic Duval—together with band mates multi-reed and horn player Joe McPhee and drummer Jay Rosen—explores the fragile balance of playing free around some familiar tunes. Duval's interpretations of golden repertoire—with recent albums paying tribute to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane—ultimately proves that jazz alive and well. Duval's recent visits to Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2006 and 2009—with Trio X, and for a spontaneous encounter with Charles Gayle and Arkadij Gotesman respectively—are now available on the Lithuanian NoBusiness Records label.

But how does an artist of such remarkable creative energy remain virtually unknown until relatively recently?

Monk Recordings

All About Jazz: You've released two Thelonious Monk records—Monkinus (CIMP, 2007) and Monk Dreams (NoBusiness Records, 2009).

Dominic Duval: Monk Dreams came before Monkinus. It is more experimental in nature. There are a lot of elements to it that were new to us and we were still putting things together. Jimmy Halperin and I wanted this record released. But the CIMP record company decided to bring us into their studio to do the recording for them. There was more production in Monkinus. When you work for a producer like Bob Rusch, who is sitting in a studio, listening to your performance, while making comments as you lay down tracks...knowing he has the final say as to what he will release is enough for me. You need to trust in their judgment. Monkinus was done after Jimmy and I had more time to think about our choice of material.

We recorded much of the same material as on Monk Dreams, but in a very different way. When playing extemporaneously, you can't really recreate things note-for-note. So, all those arrangements were reworked. By the time we went into the studio we had a whole new project. The first attempt, I think, gives the listener an honest look at how we felt about Monk's music from the beginning. "Growth" is a fundamental element that must remain constant in any art form, otherwise we are at best redundant and will fade into our own clichés.

AAJ: It feels as though Monkinus is somewhat smoother than Monk Dreams. Do you feel the new release is more avant-garde?

DD: Monk's music has always been very important in my musical education. Monk's particular style of music represents the music of bebop, music for a period in time. His music is angular. It's also very organized, in a Monk-like way.

Since the Monk Dreams recording was released first, the freshness of this music played by Jimmy and I as a duo is obvious. Monk Dreams has a more quirky quality to it. Jimmy was just learning the material and was still experimenting with different approaches to the compositions we chose to record. A musician needs to become truly invested in a music form, as special as Monk's music is. This does not mean he plays it better, he just knows more about what he wants do with it.

A fine example is Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations (Columbia, 1952). Being comfortable with a piece of music is not always best, depending on what you are listening for. What we were trying for was to become more aware of the melodies and changes, as they were to be heavily referenced in the final work. Monk's music, which we both lived with for many months before we ever played a note of it together, was our main concern. The Monk Dreams record was our introduction to hearing how the duo would work, which was important. Where we started musically is not where we were when the Monkinus recording was later conceived. Jimmy and I knew this material individually for sure. We had worked on it for about a year. And we laid it out really smooth, you're correct on that. The first recording came out beautifully, for all wrong reasons. There were mistakes which we both wouldn't make now. Now we look to find ways to continue experimenting with this material.

I know more now concerning the true essence of Monks melodies, and how to better address these issues as a bassist / artist.

Finally, if you ask which recording do I like more, my answer is I like both recordings equally as much, and am proud and happy to have Monk Dreams come out on NoBusiness Records. I think it's a perfect label for it. They are different and this is what jazz is. No matter how many times you play the same piece, it's always going to be different. That's what makes jazz so unique.

AAJ: You have always sounded very melodic, even on your more abstract solo recordings. Are you an avant-garde or mainstream musician?

DD: I am always trying to make the best music I can, within whatever style I am working in. It's really sad if you can't enjoy music because of some political or social ideology. It's not healthy. Music is mostly about details and organization. One needs to make sure there not standing in the way of some great experiment.

One of the reasons why I decided to do more music like the Monk tribute is because I want an opportunity to express myself in a way that really represents me as a player. As a bassist, as a musician and as a composer. That's important to me. Michael Jefry Stevens' For the Children is basically a mainstream record. I think Monk's music speaks in that language as well. Which is also true about this new music Jimmy Halperin and I put together in memory of John Coltrane [Music of John Coltrane (NoBusiness Records, 2010)]. It allows us to elaborate on ideas that I couldn't really elaborate on in the classical world or in the avant-garde world.

Now Trio X comes pretty close to it doing that same thing! That's a big challenge because theme and variation doesn't allow for too many excursions into the unknown. The element of freedom, it's more of a dynamic marking, like allegro or largo etc, etc. Free association makes music more personal, I think. But first comes your respect for a composer. Monk and the structure that he created need to remain in full view, not always but mostly. You can then attempt to add your personal points of view. But if you decide to use the Monk title "Blue Monk," then play "Blue Monk." To step all over it so badly that no one can recognize it is pointless. It accomplishes very little. It really shows disrespect for this music. There were giants in those days, and they were before us. Give them the respect they deserve. I have a great amount of respect for people like Trane and Monk, Bach, Cecil Taylor, Albert Ayler, Mozart, Tchakovsky. I have great respect for all these great musical giants, and many more, too many to mention.

Composed music usually requires a fair amount of attention to details, as well as performance. It's one thing to improvise music on the spot and yet another thing to play something that has been played for ages and make it sound as if it's an improvisation. These structures should sound as if they were freshly composed, just for this moment. That's a principal I've always tried to live by and aspire too. I think I do it better than some and not as good as others,

A good song is hard to find. If you find one you like—sing it!
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