Dave Douglas: Parallel Worlds
It’s after midnight in Baden-Baden, Germany, and ubiquity is starting to take its toll on Dave Douglas’ voice. The trumpeter-composer is about two-thirds of the way through “a crazy fall” of recording, touring and workshopping on both sides of the pond. After recording a set of Balkan-tinged compositions with accordionist Guy Klucevsek in New York in September, he joined pianist Myra Melford’s The Same River Twice for a two-week, 14-date European tour. He then flew back to tour his Tiny Bell Trio (with guitarist Brad Shepik and drummer Jim Black), a ten-day trek through the Northeast made challenging by an early-season blizzard in upstate New York. Douglas then made the grueling New York to Helsinki flight to perform with bassist John Lindberg’s new trio at the Tampere Jazz Happening in Finland, before traveling to the five-day New Jazz Meeting in Baden-Baden. With only a few weeks left in ’97, Douglas was far from through for the year: he still had a week of gigs with drummer Han Bennink in Holland and, upon returning to New York, a New School concert with Melford, a week’s stand at Iridium with the Sextet featured on the Wayne Shorter-inspired Stargazer (Arabesque), and “a jazz record date” with a quartet anchored by drummer Billy Hart.
It’s the type of schedule that is necessary for an experimentally oriented composer and instrumentalist like Douglas to break through the low glass ceiling created by a conformist U.S. jazz establishment. Though Douglas’ primary interest is exploring a wide range of musics with his friends, his career is nonetheless cresting towards something that resembles fame, a status only a few of his contemporaries—Don Byron, Bill Frisell and John Zorn lead the short list—have achieved, or have had foisted upon them, depending on your perspective. A large critical contingent believes him to be the best trumpeter to emerge this decade (no less than Gunther Schuller called his debut as a leader, Parallel Worlds [Soul Note], “prophetic”). He is recording for a slew of labels as diverse as Avant and Arabesque (the latter previously issued Tiny Bell Trio’s Live In Europe and will issue the debut of Douglas’ Quartet with saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist James Genus and drummer Ben Perowsky, later in ’98). Most importantly, he has developed several parallel strands in his work through several ongoing ensembles, ranging from Tiny Bell Trio, the vanguard unit of the recent Balkan music boomlet, his Sextet, the forum for his extrapolation of Shorter’s music and previously, Booker Little’s (these are not generic song book projects, as the bulk of the programs are penned by Douglas) and his String Group, which melds jazz and chamber music textures in a mostly original repertoire (plus a few plum covers of pieces by the likes of Webern, Schumann and Kirk). As a result, Douglas has the best of parallel worlds.
Certainly, that was the case at the New Jazz Meeting, where Douglas spent ten-hour days rehearsing and improvising with an intriguing pool of musicians: drummers Ed Thigpen and Gerry Hemingway, trumpeter Markus Stockhausen and several other European musicians deserving of name recognition in North America. “Everybody brought very, very different pieces of music,” said a hoarse Douglas, who had brought some of his more open-ended pieces, a new arrangement of a Rahsaan Roland Kirk composition and a homemade mix rig he calls “The Poor Man’s IRCAM,” after the citadel-like, Boulez-supervised electronic music studio in Paris. “Given the incredible level of musicianship involved, it seemed at first that some pieces took much longer than expected to get together. But looking back on it, I think it was more the case that the range of music that is happening in the world right now is so broad that not everyone can be expected to understand it all at this point.
“An experience like this in Baden-Baden definitely makes me appreciate the work that I’m doing with the Sextet and the other bands I lead. For example, when I bring something to the String Group, there is an incredible wealth of experience that we share. It’s really important to have a hand-picked crew and a really thought out plan for how things fit together.”
Given its current fruition, Douglas’ approach to project planning could serve as a blueprint for like-minded musicians. A lot of musicians work in more than one band, but too often they simply end up with different outlets for the same tunes. Douglas has created several ongoing, contrasting projects, each with its own primary focus—for example, Tiny Bell Trio’s is the Eastern European song form—and it’s own distinctive repertoire of Douglas’ compositions and arrangements (while the Sextet’s mission is his homage projects, he has included jazz standards like Herbie Nichols’ “The Gig” on TBT’s Constellations [hat ART] and Monk’s “Who Knows” on the String Group’s Five [Soul Note]. Additionally, he has wisely paced his recorded output to facilitate a steady, even rotation of his ongoing projects and to launch more occasional projects like Sanctuary, the name Douglas gives to both an extended composition and the octet of acoustic and electronic instrumentalists that perform it (it/they are featured on an Avant two-disc set). This has given his remarkably wide-ranging music a continuity that works to his advantage in a flooded marketplace: on the one hand, his prolific output is sufficiently varied so that labels are not so much in direct competition as they are in complementary co-existence; conversely, the strength of each of Douglas’ projects gives listeners the confidence to explore all the aspects of his work (in this latter regard, Douglas benefits from a tightly knitted network of collaborators: Sextet saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed and String Group cellist Erik Friedlander and drummer Michael Sarin round out Melford’s The Same River Twice; Don Byron’s Mickey Katz project included Douglas, String Group violinist Mark Feldman, Sextet trombonist Josh Roseman and pianist Uri Caine: Douglas and Sextet drummer Joey Baron are members of John Zorn’s Masada; etc., etc., etc.).
“I like moving from one group to the other and keeping them all going; they all seem to get richer as they go along,” Douglas observed. “This most recent Tiny Bell Trio tour produced some of the best music I’ve ever made with that group. There were times that I thought we were improvising of one mind. We might be playing a song that we’ve played a hundred times during the past five or six years, but the arrangement is totally different, it takes really new directions and shapes, and we are able just to go to another piece altogether and come back. It’s like dreaming, where you turn the corner and you’re in another decade with another set of people in another part of the world.” Douglas laughed when it is suggested that he was more aptly describing a tour.
Certainly, crossing paths with musicians on tour can be a bit surreal; when Douglas recently performed at the Skopje Jazz Festival with Melford’s quintet, their tight schedule permitted them only enough time between arrival and sound check to make a shopping trip for cassettes of Balkan music; an obliging shopkeeper in the old quarter would play snippets of wedding bands, accordionists and funeral music—anything the musicians handed him, and as fast as it was handed to him—forgetting that the resulting sound collage was piped outside and unaware of its confounding effect on pedestrians and neighboring vendors. Recalling the spree sparked a lively discussion about clarinetist Tale Ognenovski, which segued to the proliferation of New York bands interpreting Balkan music (interestingly, Shepik is the linchpin of the movement, leading his own group, The Commuters, and playing with both Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio and with Black and Speed, in Pachora).
“It’s this passionate heartsong music,” Douglas assuredly stated, explaining the impetus for the emergent sub-genre. Through his work with both Tiny Bell Trio and Klucevsek (their disc of through-composed music, half of which features a quartet rounded out by Feldman and Masada bassist Greg Cohen, will be issued by Winter & Winter), Douglas has come to revere it. “We have to be careful not to sell it out and not assume cultural superiority,” Douglas cautioned. “We will never play that music properly, which is why I feel my approach to that music pays homage to it, but it’s American music. It comes from my experience as an American, growing up with all the music that’s around us: all the different phases of jazz history, all of the types of maverick American experimental musics, and even pop music. It’s hard not to connect what you’re hearing to everything you’ve ever heard. I face these issues every time I deal with folkloric music, because I’m approaching it as new music that I’m bringing into my own creative process. Respect is a big issue, respect for sources together with respect for my strengths and limitations. I think that is what most composers go through. When you hear an honest music, it means the person was able to mediate that, and come up with something genuine. The Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski once said something in an interview that’s really true: when a composer listens to music he’s not hearing the piece he’s listening to; he’s hearing his own piece based on the inspiration he’s drawing from what he’s listening to. He brought it up in the context of the first time he heard John Cage’s music on the radio in 1952, and it pointed out a whole new direction for him. However, it had nothing to do with Cage; it was just something that he heard that brought out something in himself. He wasn’t even hearing Cage; he was hearing his own piece...
“Certainly, that happened with me listening to Wayne Shorter’s music over the years...What inspires me about Wayne is that he writes music that is really touching in its melodies and its very sophisticated harmonies, and is really open-minded and forward thinking...That’s the spirit I wanted to reflect on Stargazer. It’s interesting to have this project out at a time when Wayne is back out on the road in a new context. I’ve read a lot of interviews recently where he’s talking about integrating new modes of improvisation into music, finding new ways to integrate composition and improvisation, and finding new approaches to generating improvisational strategies. One of the things he said that I thought was really beautiful was that musicians would have to move beyond modality and chord progressions and changes to find the music of the future. These are concepts which I think are key to my generation of musicians. He’s one of the few people from that generation of musicians that’s talking about things like that, and who is experimenting. It’s feels good to have someone of that generation validate what we’re doing.”
Bach Stradivarius Silver large bore, 15 years old with many patches; 20-year-old Vincent Bach 5B mouthpiece
Miles Davis No Blues (JMY)
Joni Mitchell Blue and Clouds (Reprise)
Witold Lutaslawski Piano Concerto; Cristian Zimmerman, soloist (Deutsche Grammaphone)
White Elephants & Golden Ducks Music of Burma (Shanachie)
Rahsaan Roland Kirk Natural Black Inventions: Root Strata (Atlantic)
Wayne Shorter High Life (Verve)
Robert Schumann Piano Trios; Pablo Casals & Company (Sony Classical)
Paul Stinga The Magic of Romanian Music (Pierre Verany)
Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk (Atlantic)
Originally published in March 1998