Dave Douglas: Room to Breathe

The trumpeter discusses his quintet music, his prolific output and more

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Dave Douglas
By Austin Nelson
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Dave Douglas and company at NYC's Avatat Studios for the 'Be Still' sessions, April 2012. L. to r.: Rudy Royston, Joe Ferla, Dave Douglas, Linda Oh, Matt Mitchell, Aoife O'Donovan and Jon Irabagon
By Trixie
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Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano, Newport Jazz Festival, August 2012

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Homey is the word for Dave Douglas’ place. The restlessly experimental trumpeter and composer left Brooklyn in 2004 for the greener pastures (literally) of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y. The Westchester village has a long history as a haven for renegades—political radicals and “out” artists—but anyone looking for Douglas in some avant-garde commune, or musical Frankenstein’s laboratory, will be sorely disappointed.

Instead there’s a barn-like red house off a wooded back road, just a rickety roof away from a Bob Ross landscape. The lean, 50-ish man stands at the door in T-shirt, glasses and baseball cap, restraining the excitable brown mixed-breed he introduces as Finley. (Fans know the dog from the back of the 2005 album Keystone.) Inside, the air is cool but the vibe is all warm earthtones, with the lyrical saxophone of Wayne Shorter filling the room. Off to the right sits a narrow kitchen where Douglas has prepared a wondrous-smelling sweet-potato dish for lunch. Homey indeed.

How can this portrait of suburbia belong to the most cutting-edge jazz trumpeter of his generation? Practically royalty within New York’s Downtown scene since the 1990s, Douglas has often been positioned in the press as the anti-Wynton Marsalis: erudite, accomplished and acclaimed but also cerebral, eclectic and unafraid to stretch the boundaries of jazz or boldly cross them. (Even on more mainstream projects, his wide, rich, open tone has a proclivity for shattering harmonic strictures.) Far from Jazz at Lincoln Center, Douglas’ turf was Park Slope and its thriving avant-jazz community. Musically, he’s still there. Why not physically?

“You know, it’s just life, I think,” he says, laughing. “I was ready to not be looking at pavement all the time. I have a very, very lovely wife and a stepson, and it was just time to get out of the city. I thought I’d miss it terribly, but within a month I didn’t miss it at all: I love it up here.

“I love being outside,” he adds. “I’ve gotten into the marathon thing”—he’s running his first New York City marathon this November—“and hiking, I always loved. It’s what my father and mother were into, and now that they’re both gone I really wanna stay involved in it. It’s such a powerful, formative influence for me.”

These things have weighed heavily on Douglas’ mind recently. The centerpieces of his new album for his own Greenleaf Music label, Be Still, are the traditional American hymns that his mother asked him to perform at her funeral (she died of ovarian cancer in 2011). In celebrating her life, as well as his own 50th birthday next spring, Douglas is devoting 2013 to a tour of all 50 states. He’ll emphasize outdoor concert venues, including performances that will benefit outdoors initiatives like the Appalachian Mountain Club and Rails to Trails, which converts unused railroad routes around the U.S. into walking and biking paths.

But Douglas never has only one iron in the fire, and now is no exception. He’s hitting the festival circuit with Sound Prints, a quintet in tribute to Wayne Shorter that he’s co-leading with saxophonist Joe Lovano. He’s also finished a new book of tunes for his electric band, Keystone, and is anticipating the 10th edition of his Festival of New Trumpet (FONT) Music in New York this fall with co-curator Jeremy Pelt. Perhaps his suburban domesticity is just another of the many hats Douglas wears.

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Douglas’ father, who died in 2003 in a car accident, figures into Be Still too. He was an amateur musician and did much to instill that love and desire in his son. “Barbara Allen,” the album’s fourth track, was the first song Douglas played on the trumpet—in a middle-school band concert in East Orange, N.J. “I remember my father saying after it was over, ‘Wow. You actually played that.’” He laughs. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, I guess I did!’”

Douglas moved to New York in 1984 to study at NYU, where he first met Lovano. “I was on the faculty there, and he came to my loft,” says the saxophonist. “From the first notes I heard him play, we had great communication.”

There were other important connections to come. Douglas finished at NYU in 1986; the following year, “just by luck, by fluke,” he joined Horace Silver’s quintet for a six-month international tour. One of his bandmates on the tour was alto saxophonist Vincent Herring, who hired Douglas to tour with his band.

But in his own Park Slope neighborhood, Douglas fell into the burgeoning scene of experimental musicians. “That was huge, to be in Brooklyn and play with those people,” he says. “Being hired by Don Byron, by Tim Berne, working with Fred Frith, was really important to me.” His biggest break, though, came from John Zorn, who hired Douglas into Masada—a quartet that played traditional Jewish music by way of Ornette Coleman—in 1993. “I learned so much,” he says. “It wasn’t a way of playing that I was all that familiar with. There were so many things that John wanted in his music that I had never done before. So I’m really indebted to him.”

Another associate was drummer Jim Black, who arrived in Brooklyn in 1991. Soon after they met Douglas called him, along with guitarist Brad Shepik, for a gig at SoHo’s Bell Café. “We would set up in a tight circle, the three of us, in the middle of the room or near the edge,” Black recalls, “and just play our music, which was a collection of Thelonious Monk tunes, standards, a few Eastern European folksongs that Brad or Dave knew.” The circumstances—a trio in a tiny setup at the Bell Café—made for as good a name as any, and thus the Tiny Bell Trio was born. Though it began as an in-joke, says Black, their remarkable chemistry inspired Douglas to take the band more seriously: “Different vibes, different moods and really beginning to use the trio to explore a lot of his ideas compositionally,” with emphasis on rhythmic and harmonic elements from the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Their 1994 self-titled CD established Douglas as a major composer and bandleader.

After that, the deluge. Douglas’ 1993 debut, Parallel Worlds, had already introduced his String Group with violinist Mark Feldman, cellist Erik Friedlander and bassist Drew Gress; before the ’90s were through came a sextet (paying homage to Shorter and Booker Little) and two quartets, as well as continuing work with the Tiny Bell Trio and Masada. The cavalcade continued into the 21st century with, among others, Keystone; a big-band project; a brass band, Brass Ecstasy; Tea for 3, three trumpets and a rhythm section; and the Dave Douglas Quintet, with Chris Potter or Donny McCaslin on saxophone, Uri Caine on keys, James Genus on bass and Clarence Penn on drums.

In addition to being diverse, then, his output is incredibly prolific. “It’s gonna sound like a cliché, but I don’t like repeating myself, and I don’t like repeating anybody else,” Douglas explains. “I always felt like the whole thing is to say your own thing and say it differently every time. People ask me, ‘How do you have all these different projects and write so much music?’ and the only answer is that I write every day. But composition isn’t only about writing down strings of notes; it’s also about the conception of what a possible music could be. So a lot of thought goes into envisioning these different projects, defining them. I try not to use the same formula.

“There’s a quote that’s dear to me by Stevie Wonder,” he continues. “He was asked, ‘How do you write so many different tunes?’ and he said, ‘You know, you just have to get up every day and try to find a new way to say, “I love you.”’ I loved that.”

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Even by Douglas’ no-repeat standard, Be Still is a doozy. It finds him working for the first time in American folk and bluegrass contexts, including his mother’s hymns and three originals that use elements of those traditions. It also rolls out the newly minted Dave Douglas Quintet, a venturesome group featuring saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston.

“I’m a big fan of everyone in the band, which is what makes it so much fun,” says Oh, who met Douglas five years ago as a student at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Alberta, Canada (which he directed until 2011). “Dave’s got a wide range of ideas, too. Sometimes he’s more specific, something will be written out; sometimes it’s whatever I feel at the time. I trust his judgment.”

And, most obviously, it’s the first Douglas project that features a vocalist: Aoife O’Donovan, a Boston folksinger, appears on Be Still’s six traditional tunes. “I didn’t anticipate having a vocalist on this record, until I met Aoife in January of this year,” he says. (At his mother’s service, the congregation sang the hymns.) Once he heard O’Donovan at the Improvised Roots music series in Denver, though, he knew immediately that he needed to work with her. “There was something that was so real about her delivery of the songs,” Douglas says. “The marriage of words and music, it’s such a special thing and it’s something that I’ve never really dealt with in my music.”

There’s another new dimension to Be Still, a deeply personal one. While Douglas’ music has always had emotional resonance, both compositions and arrangements have tended toward the heady and complex (even for Brass Ecstasy, whose second studio album, Rare Metals, was released last summer). By contrast, the new record’s folk pieces are inherently simple, and with a few exceptions—mostly in his and Irabagon’s obbligato parts—Douglas’ arrangements are, too. Their aim isn’t challenge, but tenderness—a salve for the spirit.

“It’s a spiritual record, for sure,” Douglas agrees. There is a somber aspect to the music. While his mother’s funeral had, at her request, been presented as a party, “It didn’t feel right to me to just play those hymns with those words and try to turn it into a real obvious party zone. I think the way that the folks in the band play it, there’s a real grace to it that I think is very powerful.”

There is one self-consciously upbeat tune on the record, Ola Belle Reed’s “High on a Mountain.” It’s neither a hymn nor one of the pieces from the funeral service but, says Douglas, “I heard this song during the time that all this was going on, and the lyric was so much my mom. She was really into gardening and hiking and being outside, and that whole idea of being in this remote location with the chance to think for yourself and look back at your life, see both the positive and negative and move forward, that’s what it’s about. The lyrics are very simple, but it really resonated on that level for me. For me, this one is really something special.”

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Douglas’ other current project, Sound Prints, the Wayne Shorter-inspired quintet he leads with Lovano, has yet to record. Born of Douglas and Lovano’s tenure together in the SFJAZZ Collective during that ensemble’s exploration of Shorter’s music, Sound Prints also includes Lawrence Fields on piano and Joey Baron—a longtime favorite of both Douglas and Lovano—on drums. Its earliest gigs featured James Genus on bass, but scheduling conflicts caused him to be replaced by Oh.

Shorter is a running theme in Douglas’ work and conversation. In 1996, he recorded Stargazer, a sextet recording of Douglas’ arrangements of Shorter’s tunes, plus some originals dedicated to the saxophonist. “Well, what a hero,” Douglas says. “I would say that all the tunes I’ve written bear a direct link to one or more Wayne Shorter tunes. And the fact that he’s out there with one of the great bands in the music right now is so powerful.” He pauses. “I know that anger is not a healthy sentiment, but when I hear people putting down that band, it makes me really angry. Because those are the same people who are gonna talk about how great it was 10 years from now.”

The fact that their book comprises originals, composed by Douglas and Lovano, makes Sound Prints more than just a tribute band, however. “We’re looking at it as an opportunity to celebrate Wayne, but more about his inspiration as a composer, as an improviser and as a person,” says Lovano. “We’re trying to write original music that reflects his amazing genius without playing his repertoire at all. I think Wayne, from the beginning, has stood on his own two feet as a composer and as a musician. And we’re reflecting that.”

Douglas takes pains to differentiate Sound Prints from his previous Shorter tribute. “Stargazer, I would say, was a very different process,” he says. “It was many, many years ago, and a different process for me, in that I was making arrangements of Wayne’s music itself—different than the originals, but arrangements nonetheless. Also, the way I was writing for the band was trying to bring in specific elements from his compositional view. So I think that I’m coming at it from a much different place now, all these years later. He’s a guy who’s very important to me, who’s brought freedom and form together in a very rich way that I don’t hear in too many places.”

“We’re excited about the music, man,” Lovano says. “It’s got a beautiful focus and energy and a sound of its own.” The quintet is playing at jazz festivals in Canada and Europe through October, and will have a gala performance (and NPR simulcast) in November at the Village Vanguard.

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Meanwhile, in Croton-on-Hudson, Douglas unveils his newest opus: the sweet-potato concoction he’s made for lunch. Between bites (and some discussion of Finley the dog’s recent knee surgery), the subject of his self-imposed exile from Brooklyn returns. “My one regret is that it’s not as easy to just fall out of bed and go hear someone play as it used to be,” he muses. “I like to follow the scene, to hear what new players are doing. And so many times when I’m reading the show listings, I’m like, ‘Man, I’d really like to hear that person play,’ and it’s an 11 p.m. show somewhere in the city. Now it’s a big production to go. So I miss that.”

Still, the trajectory of Douglas’ recent career belies any concerns that he’s out of touch. He’s remained a potent and fearless artist, albeit with a quiet, comfortable life in the suburbs. In addition to his own product, his Greenleaf Music has released (among others) work by Kneebody, Matt Ulery and Oh; the lattermost is 28 and works in two of Douglas’ bands, alongside other young players like Irabagon and Fields. In short, the new young musicians come to him.

And no matter where he sits, Douglas remains committed to his own art—and to the art of jazz in general. “When young musicians come to me and ask me what they should do, I just say, ‘You’ve gotta work,’” he says. “You’ve gotta keep working on your music, and you have to stand up for it. If you really believe in it, it’s worth fighting for.”

Originally published in October 2012

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