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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!

Early Years in Music

AAJ: What are your first musical memories?

DD: Playing this old Hohner marine band harmonica which my Dad gave me, maybe kindergarten or first grade. Then, there were duets with my father, not playing, but singing old light opera, arias and Christmas songs.

AAJ: Tell me about your next steps to pursue a musical career. At what point did you realize that you wanted to be a musician?

DD: I had no idea I would turn out to be a musician, I thought this was something you could do for fun and to entertain the family with. But yes, things have an odd way of happening. Sometimes without knowing why they do, they just appear out of thin air, and all of a sudden you are sure this is the only thing you will ever want to do with your life. It happened just like that.

AAJ: Please tell more about that moment in your life when music "appeared out of the thin air."

DD: I had a lot of friends that were going into the band in public school. Many of them had older brothers who of course played jazz. We all looked up to them as role models. This sort of set the stage for my entrance into the world of jazz. Mostly all my friends were into music and the whole crowd thought this was the coolest thing. Speaking with all the other guys about jazz and who had the best records by Miles, Trane, etc. was great fun.

We had some real jazz players living in the neighborhood and I had the chance to speak with Paul Chambers quite often. A very nice and gracious man, he was very generous with his time and spoke to me whenever I could corner him on his way to the bus or whatever. Sometimes I would go see him with whatever group he was playing—with Miles Davis or Philly Joe Jones or Red Garland, anyone. There were many gigs at the clubs in Brooklyn for me to sneak into and watch one of the greatest jazz bassists alive at the time. Boy was I lucky. Yes, things have an odd way of happening. Jazz was the food that kept us all alive, for better or worse.

AAJ: It was the time of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Woodstock. Weren't you and your friends interested in all that? How did you avoid—if not miss completely—the rock influence?

DD: I don't think we missed it. Rock was the dominant United States/British culture. Jazz was mainly an American art form. Both these musics coexisted in the same period of time. Rock was a large part of my generation. When you turned on a radio it was AM you heard, there was no FM. It was rock and roll that you heard mostly. Groups like The Paramounts, The Coasters, The Drifters etc.—all R&B groups from the '50 s and '60s. My close friends and musical associations were mainly interested in jazz. Many of my friends were a part of this jazz culture.

Getting back to your question, we were pro-jazz mostly. Being part of an education system that allowed kids to learn how to play instruments was very important. In another time, I may have learned guitar instead of sax, who knows? I studied saxophone during those early years. As far as bass? Fact is, bass players in rock were not very well-known. There was James Jamerson—in my opinion, one of the great R&B players working in the '60s. Almost no one knew who he was. Paul Chambers or Charles Mingus were highly thought of icons in their field. Everyone knew who they were. Jazz has always been considered one of the more difficult musics to master. I guess I always had an interest in the more challenging aspects of the art of making music.

Joe [McPhee] and I always talk about music like R&B, people like Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, many of doo wop groups. I think could tell you as much about these artists as I can about jazz musicians, just by being around at the time they were in vogue, and listening when they were on the radio.

At fifteen, I joined one of these vocal groups. I sang and played bass. In the late '50s/early '60s, you could find a vocal group it would seem on almost every street corner/ subway tunnel. We did make a record. The name of the group was The Five Classics. That's all I care to discuss [about this] at this time.

AAJ: You've mentioned seeing Paul Chambers playing with Miles. What other great names in the history of jazz did you see, know/or listen to around that time?

DD: Everyone who was on the scene; I saw Cecil Taylor in Brooklyn with Jimmy Lyons and Sunny Murray; there was the great: Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter and, of course, John Coltrane with Miles and with the quartet of Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner. It was all there in New York. If it was not in Brooklyn, then for a dime you could take the train into the city and see it there. Late '50s through the late '70s. This was a good time to be listening to music in general.

AAJ: Did you see Monk?

DD: Yes, I saw him as many times as my budget would allow. The [Village] Vanguard of '60s and, before that, uptown Manhattan. He was a true work of art, as was his music.

AAJ: What happened to you next? Did you start playing in a jazz band?

DD: I was playing with many friends, but a real band would come later. I just tried to stay ahead of the game, and make music that I could be excited about, with the limited abilities I had.

I was a saxophonist for a few years before I found the bass. After hearing people like Coltrane, I decided the bar was way too high to jump over. Like in the Olympics, you need to jump as high as the leader or you're out. He was the highest jumping motherfucker I ever saw, no need to try my luck at it. Seemed like a impossible task to achieve. Not even the great Sonny Rollins could beat Trane; he was his equal, for sure, in many musical ways, but never better. The '60s was a damn good period for sax players, and for music in general. The bass was more doable for me.

AAJ: Was Paul Chambers' influence one of the major reasons behind your moving to bass?

DD: Yes and no. His musicianship was, and his tone. I started the bass to try to find my own voice in an instrument I thought I could excel at. It looked easier than saxophone—only four strings. I didn't know how hard that could be. I should have stayed with the sax. It would have made my life easier, and of course carrying this monster around the globe has not been easy. Lastly, I hear you get more women with a horn.
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