SCENA Jazz

Friday, January 30, 2009

Dave Douglas: The Creative Imperative

February 1

To make their mark, jazz musicians need a thorough grounding in the tradition and a distinct, original sound. While his grounding has been called into question by some critics, no one argues with the fact that trumpeter Dave Douglas is presently performing some of the most original music. From his "young days" with Horace Silver in the 1980s, to his seminal work in John Zorn's Masada, to his own prolific output as a composer and bandleader, Douglas is consistently one of the most interesting improvisers. In late February, he will visit with the San Francisco Jazz Collective (SFJC), one of many personal projects that he spoke about in a recent phone conversation.

Paul Serralheiro: You're just coming off the holiday break, right?

Dave Douglas: Actually I was rehearsing all last week with the Collective, so I'm no longer on holiday now. This year, we were lucky enough to do advance rehearsals in New York, just to get a jump on all the new music. Just yesterday [January 11] we did a kind of open rehearsal at the Lincoln Center; I think it was because of the annual arts presenters' conference. It was fun; there were plenty of friends and acquaintances around who came to check us out.

P.S.: You joined the SFJC in 2007.

D.D.: This is officially my third season with the group. Josh Redman was still there when I arrived. Each year we build a new program evenly divided between our own pieces and arrangements of works by great jazz composers, like Thelonious Monk in my first year. Joe Lovano replaced Joshua, and Stefon Harris took Bobby Hutcherson's place, then Robin Eubanks came in on trombone and we tackled a program of Wayne Shorter pieces. This time, we'll be doing the music of McCoy Tyner. And that, as you can imagine, changes the sound of the group quite a bit. Of these, the earliest is "Aisha" which dates from 1961, the most recent one being "Consensus" from 1977. My favorite McCoy piece is "Peresina" –it's from the 1968 album Expansions, a date with Woody Shaw and Gary Bartz.

P.S.: I know you have a lot of projects going and you have played with lots of people over the years, but what do you get out of this group that you might not have gotten in other places?

D.D.: Maybe a better way to look at it is what can I bring to it, in other words, what can I offer and how can I serve a group. This is the way I tend to look at it. To me this band is unique in the history of jazz. And I guess I can bring myself as a trumpet player to serve the music that these other members are writing and arranging. But as a composer and arranger myself, I also try to bring something vital, that brings out something in everyone. Now that might sound pretty lofty, but that's what music is all about for me: it's finding out who those individual players are and to bring out that voice in them so as to allow them to say something unique and personal. 

P.S.: In what way is the group unique in the history of jazz?

D.D.: Everyone composes individual music with no limitations. The group is sponsored by a major jazz institution, SFJazz, a major organization that grew from being merely a presenter of a festival to being the creator of an entire vision of what this music can be. I'm proud to be a part of that.

 P.S.: In an interview for the International Trumpet Guild a few years ago, you spoke to some extent about jazz education, and how much of it is focused on music of the 1940s and 1950s bop era. Are you and this group interested in addressing this issue by reconsidering some overlooked music of that period and thereafter?

D.D.: That's a huge question, and I don't want to speak for the group here. I'm sure that if you sat us all down at a table and asked us this question you would probably get widely disparate opinions. As for myself, I would say that one of the things with this band that makes it such a great playing experience, is that everyone comes to the job totally into the music. I never have the feeling–and this is the way I approach music personally–that none of us are presenting something as an argument for or against a given period of music or a certain player. The music we're making happens now, at this moment in time, and I don't think we should differentiate between music from the distant past and from today. Ultimately, when it comes to making music, all you can do is to try to involve yourself in the moment and to live through all the things we've lived in our lives.When I step away from my horn or write an essay, and you know I like to share thoughts I have about music on my blog, I may say some things in the context of thinking about where we are and what's going on that are more an analysis of the situation than really going into the act of creating music. I think they're really two separate things. I'm involved in jazz education most vigorously when I'm at the Banff school of music directing the Jazz and Creative music program, and it's really an interesting inner-conversation for me to be involved in "how do we think about music? How do we talk about it? And how do we communicate our thoughts and our practices?", even if we step out of such explanations into the real world of making music, which is beyond words, beyond philosophy, concept and argument. Trying to keep those two things separate in a way is important for me.

P.S.: Of late, you've been doing concerts in Germany with ensembles larger than those you normally participate in. In fact, you have stated that you were never really keen on big bands. Have you changed your attitude about these? What attracts you then to the projects you've been doing over there? 

D.D.: That's a good question. True, I never really did much big band work. I once was in the stage band in my high school and just hated it. But that's not a reflection on the director, who was a wonderful person, a fine musician who taught me a lot of other things, but I just always wanted to play improvised music in small groups, which is how I've emerged as a composer, and that's what I do best... writing pieces that involve both improvisation and composition with the context of a small ensemble. The wonderful director of the Salzau Festival in Northern Germany [a.k.a. Jazz Baltica], Rainer Haarman, asked me if I would be interested in writing a suite for big band. I thought about it for a while and said it was time to do that. "Letter from America" is what the resulting piece is called. It's basically my quintet augmented by the big band of the North German radio (NDR). It was a lot of fun, but quite a challenge. For me, it was how do you take that format and make it sound both original and fresh? That's really tough to do because there have been so many great composers in that idiom, and I'm sure it's the same for a classical composer writing a string quartet: You're looking at these enormous towers of creativity and trying to live up to that. In spite of that, I still had a great time working on it. But there is yet another project which came along recently: Pianist Jim McNeely was hired to write big band arrangements for the Hessischer Rundkfunk [HR radio big band, based in Frankfurt] and he chose a dozen or so of my small group compositions. I'm going over there in early February to do that with him. Actually, I've been talking to Jim on and off for about eight months or so, discussing repertoire, so we'll be premiering that this month. To me it's just a coincidence that these two initiatives happened in Germany, but I'd surely want to bring this project to North America next year. But then again, since there are several such bands sponsored by their national-radios, it enables such projects to happen.

P.S.: Is the piece Jim McNeely arranging called "Blue Latitudes"? 

D.D.: No, "Blue Latitudes" is an entirely different beast. It's for a chamber orchestra. This new project, I think, is called  "The Big band meets Dave Douglas" or something like that. They are all compositions of mine written over the years, but arranged for big band.

P.S.: The piece for chamber Orchestra is also a big project, I would think. Is this something new for you?

D.D.: I think that's more of a thing where I was able to imagine the ensemble, choose the players and instruments. "Blue Latitudes" is much more coming out of the contemporary classical language.

P.S.: Is that something you're touring, or was that a one-time event? 

D.D.: I think it's been performed about half-a-dozen times. There's another performance coming up in 2010; it's something I love to do and hope to be playing more, even to continue to write for. But it's not a big band work at all.

P.S.: As you say, it's a chamber orchestra. It must be quite a challenge to balance improvisation and writing for a large group. There are successful large improvising groups, the ICP, for one, proves that it can work, but what are the challenges of writing for a large improvising group?

D.D.: I try to find areas where the players in the ensemble have a lot of choice, but I think it is a very delicate balance. Even in the SFJC, we deal with issues of how to create this feeling of freedom and spontaneity and still have a sense of organization and structure. To me, that's really the forefront of composition, one of the most interesting parts and one of the reasons Wayne Shorter is still my biggest hero. It is also what I find most exciting about Gil Evans and Charles Mingus and even Thad Jones, and classical composers like Lutoslawski. Even in John Adams's music, which is almost completely notated, there are some areas of freedom and spontaneity that I think are really kind of interesting and revolutionary.

P.S.: You've played with a lot of different people, including singers like Sheryl Crowe and Patricia Barber. Is there anyone you haven't played with yet, but with whom you'd want to?

D.D.: Well, Céline Dion, of course. Can you make that happen?

P.S.: Well, I guess while you're up here, you can look into it.

D.D.: I know. I'm trying to be geographically topical. In all seriousness, though, there are way too many people to name. I think this is the richest period in creative music in the history of mankind; there are so many things that I would want to do, but I just find it takes time to make projects happen. When I'm not on the road performing, I'm composing, which takes up all my time. So I can't just drift from one collaboration to another without giving myself the needed time to conceive these.

P.S.: But you are comfortable in a lot of different settings, which is kind of unusual. Most musicians stick to one kind of music, but you're able to diversify and bring something to the music that's in keeping with your own vision, something quite special. In terms of tributes, you've also done quite a few of them. Is there anyone you're considering at this time beyond McCoy Tyner?

D.D.: Well, I have this new record that I've just made that's going to come out in the spring. It's a band that I've been playing with off and on since about 2005. It's called Brass Ecstasy. As you might know, the inspiration came from Lester Bowie's Brass Fantasy. Like his band, it too is a quintet with trumpet, French horn, trombone, tuba and drums. We do mostly new compositions, with a couple of covers. But I wouldn't call it a tribute to Lester; instead, I've been thinking a lot about trumpet players, something that never really was my main concern in music. When I started the band, I rather came to it as a composer who happened to play trumpet. A few years ago, I started focusing in on Don Cherry, Woody Shaw—who was always one of my favorites—and Lester Bowie. This record is more of a way of channeling a few of my own trumpet heroes.

P.S.: Speaking of trumpet players, Freddie Hubbard passed away just before the New Year. I noticed the nice tribute to him you posted on your blog. In it, you say that every trumpet player has learned something from Freddie. Would you care to comment on any specific personal influence Freddie had on you?

D.D.: I think that hearing Freddie Hubbard was what showed me the way to play over changes. He did it so effortlessly and everybody comes out of him in my mind, because he did it in a sort of textbook way. And then you hear your other favorite trumpet players, like Woody Shaw, who was much more idiosyncratic and perhaps even maybe more advanced harmonically, but much more difficult to grasp. As for Miles Davis, he was much more enigmatic, with fewer notes and guiding by elision. Apart from that, you might look at—and I'm just thinking of modern trumpeters here—Lester Bowie's way of getting through things. Baikida Carroll is also someone very important to me. But Freddie Hubbard is the chapter and verse way of navigating modern changes, and he's the one who showed me the light on how to do it. With John Coltrane as a figure in the music, it wasn't always easy to figure how to integrate his language, so I think one of the debts we owe to Freddie Hubbard is that he was the one trumpeter who was able to appropriate that language and show how it worked on a brass instrument.

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