Previously Published Articles, Essays and Reviews
The Test: Dave Douglas
Trumpeter Dave Douglas premiered two projects at this year’s Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Mountain Passages, a concert-length series of pieces inspired by the folk music of the Italian Dolomites, was performed for the first time in North America on the opening night of the 10-day event, while Iron Giant, an improvising nonet co-assembled by Douglas and drummer Dylan van der Schyff, debuted two nights later. Hearing Douglas in disparate settings in close proximity was a timely reminder of why Douglas became a central progressive force in jazz during the 1990s, and remains one.
On some counts, Mountain Passages, which is also the name of the quintet that performs the work, is somewhat reminiscent of Douglas’ Charms of the Night Sky. Douglas’ distillations of the region’s pristine Nature-inspired songs and gregarious drinking songs balance Old World flavor and subtle contemporary edge. He has honed an inviting, flexible ensemble sound with saxophonist/clarinetist Michael Moore, tuba player Marcus Rojas, cellist Peggy Lee and van der Schyff. They are equally persuasive exuding the verve of regional bands and giving the music a discernable American accent when Douglas employs second line grooves and sleek jazz tempi. The melding of almost broad emotions and understated erudition on Mountain Passages is quintessential Douglas.
Iron Giant reflects the actively experimental facet of Douglas’ sensibility. He and van der Schyff selected an intriguing cross-section of Vancouver-based musicians for the project: improvised music stalwarts like Lee, bassist Torsten Muller, and guitarist Ron Samworth; jazz oriented players like pianist Chris Gestrin and saxophonist Jon Bentley; and wild cards like young trumpeter JP Carter and roots music-versed violinist Jesse Zubot. With the exception of an exuberant trio by Lee, Muller and Zubot, it seemed left up to Douglas and van der Schyff to prod the others. Iron Giant’s seasoned improvisers needed little coaxing to take it up a notch; when the others responded in sufficient numbers, the results were engaging.
Yet, the news out of Vancouver with the most long-range implications for Douglas’ career is his disclosure that he has left RCA Victor. He has started his own, yet unnamed label, for which Mountain Passages will be the inaugural release in early 2005. For Douglas, who is now 41, the motivation for the move was simple: he wants to retain ownership of his music. Having fulfilled his five-album deal with RCA Victor, Douglas wanted to avoid the entanglements of another long-term contract, particularly with a label whose several name changes since Douglas’ high profile signing in 1999 is emblematic of the current volatility in the recording industry. Having his own imprint will allow Douglas not only to release his own projects when he wants, but also to release albums by artists he admires (without naming names, Douglas said signings are in the works). Douglas’ label will be a partnership with Michael Friedman, whose Premonition label has just issued Bow River Falls, documenting another Vancouver fest-spawned project, a co-op quartet with Lee, van der Schyff and clarinetist/saxophonist Louis Sclavis.
Douglas’ Test was administered in front of a live audience as part of the festival’s educational programming, which includes workshops, panel discussions, and artist residencies. For more information about the Canada Trust Vancouver International Jazz Festival, consult: www.coastaljazz.ca.
1. Horace Silver: "Peace"
Dave Douglas:: That’s "Peace" by Horace Silver. The trumpeter player is Blue Mitchell. That’s great.
Bill Shoemaker: You worked with Horace Silver in the mid ‘80s. It’s something you see in passing in your biography without much elaboration. What was it like?
Douglas:: It was great. I felt I was lucky to be working with Horace on many levels. First of all, I was lucky that my career started in the vinyl era, and that I’m actually on an LP. It was one of the last LPs ever printed, but nevertheless there we were. It was a record called Second Sight and somehow this record got into the hands of Horace Silver. He got my phone number and he called me. It was one of those classic things where I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke. He hired me and I went out and stayed in his house in Malibu for a week and rehearsed. I then toured with him for about three or four months around the world. I felt that in some ways -- maybe many ways -- I was unqualified to do the gig. I had been practicing a lot and was really into Woody Shaw and other modern players, and I was trying to impose that on the music that Horace was writing at the time. And he would always talk to me about this particular player, Blue Mitchell, and how I should check out Blue Mitchell. Of course, I was 23, so I didn’t need to hear that. I knew everything. When you’re 23, you have it all figured out. Now I’m 41 and I realize I don’t have anything figured out anymore. So, I think that Horace was really kind to let me stay with the band as long as he did. He talked to me a lot about how to play this music and a lot of those lessons are still with me. I listen to Blue Mitchell and Kenny Dorham with different ears now. You know, Horace Silver was the first person to talk to me about Mary Lou Williams, who I didn’t know anything about at that time, but Mary Lou became someone that is very important to me, someone I built a whole project of music around. So, I thank him for that, as well.
Shoemaker: Well-being and spirituality are two big themes in Silver’s work by that time. Was that present in how he apprenticed you?
Douglas:: Yeah, definitely. As you go through a career as a performing artist, you run into a lot of people who have different relationships to spirituality and see what makes them be able to do what they do on a daily basis for many years against many obstacles. When I was staying at Horace’s, he would get up every morning and play an LP of a big orchestral piece by Scriabin and just blast it. I didn’t expect that. He also talked about hearing music in his dreams and being visited by the masters. He had a dream when we were on the road that he was playing this song with Ben Webster, which he then wrote out and we were playing it the next week. He was a deep inspiring person to be around.
Shoemaker: Unfortunately, the window is now closing for young musicians to have that type of opportunity to play with Silver’s generation.
Douglas:: It’s still going on a little, but there’s been so many passings lately -- Elvin Jones, Steve Lacy, Ray Charles -- it makes you realize how important it is to go out and hear these people and try to talk to them and just be around them.
2. Naked City: "Snagglepuss"
Douglas: Lou Donaldson, right? I haven’t heard that music in a really long time. What an incredible band and what an incredible amount of work that went into that music. Powerful music.
Shoemaker: It exemplified the Downtown scene that you became identified with beginning in the late 1980s.
Douglas: Against my wishes, but yes. I have always hated to have music broken up into categories like "uptown" and "downtown." You know that about me because we’ve talked over the years. In a piece like that, there’s so much going on, so much richness. There’s the influence of contemporary classical music, there’s clearly a jazz influence, there’s rock and roll, noise and punk. To just say -- Ok, these are the downtown cats -- to me, it’s just a way to put someone in a box and put them over there and not think about them anymore. When I started playing below 14th Street and people started calling me "downtown," that bothered me. So, then I made it a point to get a few gigs above 14th Street and then everyone was really confused. But, now there’s a lot of musicians who not only play above and below 14th Street, but in Jersey City and Williamsburg, Brooklyn as well. I think it’s a positive sign for the music that musicians can define themselves by what they do and not be put into these categories. I think that John Zorn and some of the others in this band were among the early people who made that possible. I mean, what category are you going to put Joey Baron in?
Shoemaker: Beyond category.
Douglas: Yeah. Hearing that little piece of music reminded me of playing with Masada and how much all those elements -- all those wild textural changes and changes in tempo, lightning fast stuff -- were in Masada’s music as well, even though it was a standard jazz quartet instrumentation. That’s part of who John Zorn is. He’s always said he is the kind of composer who works in small blocks, little bits of information, and puts them all together. You could write a list of all the little blocks of information that were in the piece we just heard and you would be amazed by all the things on the list. Of course, how you make the list and how you perform it requires more than a little skill, I would say. Now, he writes mainly contemporary classical pieces, but when I hear them, I hear the same mind at work on this piece. He really is the definition of someone with a worldview that has made some tough decisions and said, This is the way I want to work.
3. Anton Webern: "Sehr bewegt" from "5 Movements for String Quartet (1909)"
Douglas: This is from a Webern string quartet. Pretty radical young man. I arranged it for my very first album, Parallel Worlds, and I couldn’t figure out why people didn’t think it was jazz. I felt: OK, we improvise on "Donna Lee," the music of Mingus and Monk, and all the great Tin Pan Alley composers, so why not take this piece by Anton Webern, take it apart, and use elements as a basis for improvisation? It’s a fun thing to do, and I think it’s something that’s much more common now, musicians looking to the composers of the 20th Century for material to make improvised music that’s also coming out of the African-American tradition. I thought it was an exciting blend, two things that were ready to meet. It was the same way I felt when I first heard Macedonian brass bands, that this was music that was waiting to be blown wide open. I wouldn’t move to Skopje and play it the way they played it. I would be physically capable of playing it that way. But, this was a way we could understand and think about music that was new and different to us. I arranged this Webern piece around the same time that I started to use 12-tone compositional techniques in some of my music. I read a book by Charles Wourinen called Simple Composition, a deceptive title. There’s a story behind it. I used to go to this club called Visiones in Greenwich Village, and one night I went to hear Greg Osby play. This is probably in the late 1980s. I happened to have my horn with and he said, Why don’t you come up and sit in? Then Steve Coleman walks in and gets out his horn. So, now I’m standing between Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, and they call off some standard really fast and they start doing all their M-Base stuff. It was ridiculous. I was getting completely pummeled like in a cartoon by these lines that seemed like a never-ending flow of new information, completely uncliched, this complete other universe of melodies. As soon as the tune was over, I slinked off the stage, put my horn in its case and went home, feeling about this big. Then I sat down and thought about how they had created their own language, a new set of parameters. That’s when I found this book by Wourinen and started writing 12-tone lines for myself, and learned them forward and backwards and inverted, using that logic to guide me into some areas as a composer that I would never otherwise consider. The piece, "Parallel Worlds," the title track of that first album I made, is pretty straightforward in its use of 12-tone technique. So, sometimes getting your ass kicked is a positive thing.
4. Yuri Yunakov Ensemble: "Ruchenitsa a la Paganini"
Douglas: Lou Donaldson again. I’m trying to figure out if that’s Yuri Yunakov, Ferris Mustafa or someone else.
Shoemaker: It’s Yuri Yunakov. The piece is called "Ruchenitsa a la Paganini."
Douglas: "Ruchenitsa" means a dance in 7, a very fast 7 that almost sounds like 3 sometimes. Is Brad Shepik on that track? He plays with Yuri.
Shoemaker: No, but mentioning Shepik provides a way to segue into something I think is important. During different decades, different folk music traditions have been introduced to the jazz lexicon: Cuban music in the ‘40s; Indian music in the early ‘60s. And in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the music of the Balkans became more widely heard in a jazz context, which is something you and several of your close colleagues, including Brad Shepik, are responsible for.
Douglas: Yeah, but I feel that’s an oversimplification. I think people were listening to odd metered music from the Balkans, Greece and Turkey way back. An obvious example is Dave Brubeck’s "Blue Rondo A La Turk." Jimmy Giuffre. Joe Maneri, who is now well known for recording Greek odd metered music in the early ‘60s. And I think you can go back before that. It think it comes and goes, each generation encountering a type of music and having a different relationship to it, and then coming up with different results, based on their knowledge of that music. Muhal Richard Abrams is another guy who was listening to Balkan music very early on. I certainly didn’t start the Tiny Bell Trio thinking I was going to be the first one to do Balkan music-influenced jazz, because it was already around. When I started that band, I was listening to Julius Hemphill records with pieces like "Dogon AD" and "The Hard Blues," very sophisticated and very hip odd metered music. And very American, coming from his place as an African-American from Texas. That was a big influence on me and a lot of people. Also, look at Paul Motion and his trio, the way they were playing. There were certain pieces they did that I feel had that sound. Also Lee Konitz. Another big thing for me was what Henry Threadgill was doing with bands like Very Very Circus, music that had these other references but was still coming out of the great American tradition of composed and improvised music. So, I would have to disagree that we started something new. Hopefully, we did it our own way and with our own references. That’s always the most important thing to me, that you bring yourself to whatever the material is at hand, and that you add something, that you find a new way of experiencing something about the world. The world’s been here for a very long time. Most of the things you say about the world have been said before. There’s the great adage, If you say something that no one has ever said before, it’s probably not worth saying. So, I think it’s up to an artist to come up with new ways of interpreting these internal verities, and there’s certainly a great long tradition in the music we just heard that needs to be looked at and understood and studied.
5. Booker Little: "Victory And Sorrow"
Douglas: I can’t remember the name of the tune, but it’s from Booker Little’s Victory And Sorrow. That’s George Coleman, Julian Priester, Max Roach? -- oh, Pete LaRoca -- Reggie? That’s Don Freedman, who’s still with us. Sweet. Booker Little died about two months after this recording was made, of a rare blood disease -- uremia -- that Is now curable. He could have been cure then, but they didn’t know what it was. I mean, he was 23 years old. One of the real tragedies of the music, as far as I see it. Manic practicing; straight arrow, beautiful guy, according to everyone who knew him. To be cut down that early doesn’t make any sense. You can clearly hear his compositional voice in that piece. That’s what initially attracted me to his music, the way the parts are put together, and the way he put together sections you thought would not ordinarily work -- different tempos, feels and changes. This was before I realized what a great trumpeter he was. I was never attracted first to the virtuosity of any of the players I really admired. I made a record early in my career called <<In Our Lifetime>> that was dedicated to Booker Little, and I did rearrangements of some of his pieces from that period. Also, the way I was thinking about writing for that instrumentation (the sextet that also did the Wayne Shorter and the Mary Lou Williams projects) was influenced by what he had done. I was always interested in questions of form. Why should the music always begin in one place, have something else happen, and return to that first place? For me, the compositional process was about trying to move the function of form around, and change the way the instruments functioned in the ensemble, and change the assumptions about what should come first and what should follow and what should go next. In "Victory And Sorrow," you hear him going to that issue. I felt on my record I was taking those ideas and expanding them over the course of longer pieces. Still, to this day, when I sit down to write music, that’s one of the first things I think about: What’s the overall form going to be? Sometimes, I think I hear in improvised music of all kinds certain assumptions: you do this and then you do that and then you do this. It’s a given, and you can only create something new within these parameters. I really wanted to question the parameters themselves. That got me into hot water; but as a composer, it really permitted me to feel like I could contribute something in some small way.
6.Myra Melford - The Tent: "Everything Today"
Douglas: I don’t know the album or the song, but it’s Myra Melford, who I played with for many years, a great composer. She figured out how to study with Henry Threadgill. Now, you go to Henry and say, Henry, can I study with you? Can you show me something about the way you work? And he says, Go ask Myra, she knows everything. You see it in her work. She organizes music in really unusual ways and she’ll ask the musicians to perform these tasks that are somewhere between playing the composition and improvising. It’s very unusual and it’s the kind of music where someone comes up after the gig and asks how much is improvised. And, you just have to scratch your head and say, It just doesn’t work like that. You can hear they -- Myra, Cuong Vu, Chris Speed, Stomu Takeishi and Kenny Wolleson -- are playing together, but you would be hard pressed at times to say what was going on beyond that they were all playing together. It’s very tricky music. Some of her stuff is really hard. And she plays with this incredible energy. If you’ve ever seen her, she’s not very big, but she’s like a volcano when she starts playing. You can’t believe that much sound is coming out of this person. And, Cuong Vu is a great trumpet player who you all should check out, a bandleader and composer in his own right.
7. Mary Lou Williams: "Aries"
Douglas: Mary Lou Williams’ “Aries" from “The Zodiac Suite,” 1944. I can’t remember the name of the bass player for the life of me.
Shoemaker: I made a few note cards for today, and for this track I just wrote the date, which is astonishing when you think this recording was made 10 years before Herbie Nichols’ Blue Note sides.
Douglas: Yeah, but Mary Lou Williams is one of the amazing, surprising and inspiring figures in American music. That’s one of the first pieces I heard of hers that really knocked my socks off, and I starting finding all her other stuff. Then I realized that her career started in the early 1920s, and she kept on playing until the end of her life in 1980 or ’81, somewhere in there. She met Jelly Roll Morton and Art Tatum, and she played with Cecil Taylor in 1977. She never did anything a cute, self-promoting way; when she played with Cecil, they really went to some weird areas. She wrote this piece in the early ’30 -- I think it’s called "Walking and Swinging" -- and it’s got this riff in it that’s exactly the same as Thelonious Monk’s "Rhythm-a-ning." Monk was a friend of hers and freely admitted that’s where he heard it. She not only befriended Monk, but Elmo Hope, Bud Powell and a lot of the great pianists of that era. I think they learned as much from her as she did from them. It was in this period that she started mixing those very modern harmonic and rhythmic ideas with the old school swing feeling.
Shoemaker: And a very unique sense of form.
Douglas: Yeah, and that spoke directly to me. I did a rearrangement of that piece for my sextet where he pulled it apart and reconstructed it. But, the amazing thins about Mary Lou is that she kept growing through the ‘50s and ’60 and into the ‘70s. That, more than anything, made me feel this kinship, this hope that as I go through life, I’ll kept growing and expanding. She’s a lighthouse, something to aspire to. And, she’s another very spiritually aware and spiritually active person. I got to meet a lot of people who were around her and knew her, and I heard a lot of tapes that at the time were unreleased. She wrote a lot of church music and vocal music that really hasn’t been heard much. It’s all really great.
8. Wynton Marsalis Quartet: "You And Me"
Douglas: I don’t know this recording, but I know who it is.
Shoemaker: During the so-called Jazz Wars of late 1990s, you were often characterized in the jazz press as the anti-Wynton …
Douglas: That’s ridiculous. Music isn’t a war. It’s not a competition. You don’t prove anything by making a piece of music. When you make beautiful music, you make yourself happy and challenged, you have fun with your friends, and hopefully some people in the audience enjoy it, too. I think when you turn it into some kind of sociological and cultural war about what’s OK and what’s not, the music loses. The music is the only loser in that battle, because you can’t hear it anymore. All you’re hearing is these stupid little petty arguments. I’ve just ignored that stuff, because I just don’t think it’s important. "The anti-Wynton." What does that mean anyway? I don’t get it. Certainly, there’s got to be a racial tip there, which is disturbing for him and for me, for all of us, to look at it that way is so depressing that I’ve decided if that’s what people want to say, just spell my name right. It has no place in the way I think about music. Let me say this. I do feel strongly about promoting a proper understanding of the history of American music. When the Ken Burns documentary came out, I was very upset and angry that their portrayal of history was so incomplete and almost willfully ignorant of so many of the important figures of the music. That really upset me, but, again, that’s not about music. That’s about the history of the music. I love talking about music. Music doesn’t speak for itself. When the song is over, people talk about it. But, to say you’re talking about music when you’re really talking about sociology and politics is a disconnect for me. I felt that what they did with that documentary, with that historical presentation, was very disrespectful to a lot of very important artists.
9. Roswell Rudd/Steve Lacy/Misha Mengelberg/Kent Carter/Han Bennink: "Epistrophy"
Douglas: Who got them to play just one chorus each? Misha and Han are always trying to get the last note -- hear that? I’m going to play again with Roswell in about ten days, one of the most challenging people I’ve ever worked with. I mean that in the most positive sense. Hearing Steve … wow. What can I say? It’s such a loss. I played with Steve for a very short time, some of the very last performances he ever gave. He gave me so much. He was so generous. He taught me things I had never thought about. He never let on about how ill he was. We’d go to work each night and hang out, and it seemed like we’d be playing together forever. And now he’s gone. What a great spirit. Thanks for playing that.