Blesok no. 34, September-October, 2003
Dave Douglas – A Man With Many Interests and Passions
Dave Douglas is a well-known figure in the world of contemporary jazz, a person that navigates effortlessly through various genres regardless if it is free jazz, Indian or Balkan music. As a composer, improviser and trumpeter he is completely dedicated to making music that breaks through the limits and concepts of the traditional jazz form. Having a strong background in jazz, he constantly questions with each new project the boundaries between the genres as well as the assumptions and the notions about music. The variety of his influences and interests is evident in his work i.e. the number of bands that he leads which leaves one with the impression he is involved in a miriad of different projects.
If you want to understand his music then you will have to leave behind any pre-conceived notions about jazz you might have because the music he creates cannot be easily categorised. In the past, he has played in numerous ensembles and has participated in over 70 albums by various other artists, while in the last 15 years he has released around 16 albums of his own and is the leader of 8 bands. Each of these bands plays music that is unique and different and all of them reflect in some form his tastes and interests.
He started playing music at a very young age by playing various instruments, eventually choosing the trumpet as his main instrument. In high school, he studied jazz and classical harmony, progressing towards playing improvised music as a student in Barcelona, Spain. Later he studied at the renowned Berkley University and the New York University, during which period he took part in the local music scene by participating in numerous jazz, funk and experimental music groups.
I started very young on piano, trombone, and trumpet. I was drawn to
recordings of music of all kinds: jazz, pop, classical, etc. Through listening to a wider and wider variety of music, and following the works of my heroes. Also, it was a music I somehow felt I could play. I would say that I try to listen to all kinds of music. I spent most of my formative years listening exclusively to jazz, and I am a jazz musician, and I feel that the music I make is jazz – with maybe a few exceptions. So I feel like the reason I'm listening to so much different stuff right now is maybe that I'm just trying to further broaden my own horizons.
His biography includes numerous projects with people like Don Byron, Anthony Braxton, Sean Lennon. From 1987 ‘till 1990 among others he plays with Horace Silver, Vincent Hearing, Tim Berne and The Bread and the Puppet Theatre. Besides that he leads different bands such as Charms of the Night Sky, Tiny Bell Trio (that plays music inspired by Balkan music), Jazz Quartet and Sextet and most recently the Dave Douglas’ New Quintet.
Your musical biography includes numerous collaborations with well-known people from the world of jazz and you lead a number of bands. Do you feel that working with different people helps you develop different creative elements within you?
Absolutely. It’s a way to hear all the music that I’m hearing in my head. Also it’s a way to get together with my friends. When Masada plays it’s like an old family reunion.
During the 90’s he began recording his first albums that were released by well know labels Hat Art, Soul Note, New World, Arabesque, Song lines and Winter & Winter. His first solo album was released in 1993 and was titled Parallel World. The following year he formed a new trio Tiny Trio Bell that actually plays music from the Balkans as a basis for improvisation. Last year the trio performed throughout Europe to promote their latest album “Songs for the Wandering Spirits”.
The Tiny Bell Trio plays music that is influenced by the music from the Balkan region. How well are you acquainted with the music from this part of the world? (The Balkans)
I am surely not as well acquainted as you!. But, seriously, I have
listened to quite a bit of the music of the region and love it dearly. My experiences with Eastern European music are more recent. They began in the late 80s in an experimental Dance/Music/Theatre group in Switzerland, which was using Romanian folk music as the basis of a show. Then I began transcribing tapes of various different traditional musics from that part of the world. In 1990, I began playing klezmer music with Don Byron, which was a great education. It was in 1991 or '92 that I began writing my own music in the style of these various traditions, and to experiment with improvising on the trad. pieces Tiny Bell was not an attempt to re-create that music, merely to bow to its importance by alluding to it. Some of the greatest improvisers, as
you know, come out of the Balkans.
His abilities as musician and improviser were noticed by John Zorn who engaged him to play in his newly formed Thieves Quartet, the predecessor of the Masada ensemble. John Zorn is a New York based avant-garde musician that is known for his unusual approaches and concepts. The Masada band/project consists of 10 studio albums and several live albums as well as a chamber version of it Bar Kokhba. As part of the Masada tour they played in Skopje in 1995 as part of the Skopje Jazz Festival.
It was a great honour to play on these recordings and I admire John greatly as a friend and as a musician. They were recorded very quickly and as every other composition that Zorn has ever done, they were based on improvisation. I learn from him every time we go out and play. With him I feel that I have my own voice in that music. My roll is figuring out what he wants and try and give it to him. I've learned a lot technically on the trumpet from playing with John, from trying to live up to what he does on his instrument, some of the most extreme, extended techniques going on out there on any instrument.
What do you find most rewarding about collaborative work? And most frustrating?
Learning is the most rewarding and the most frustrating thing.
It seems that Zorn influenced him with his own approach to building a career where D. Douglas attacked numerous projects at the same time. Since then he is participating in several projects and is leading several bands with whom he is performing throughout the world. By paying tribute to the music that inspired him he is recording several tribute projects dedicated to important jazz figures such as Wayne Shorter, Thelonious Monk, Booker Little and Mary Lou Williams. Contrary to other projects of this type he is taking the music to a higher level, which means that he doesn’t copy that tracks note by note, instead he is using them as a basis for further improvising and rearranging.
The “Soul on Soul” album is a tribute to Mary Lou Williams. Also, you recorded other tribute albums dedicated to Booker Little (In Our Lifetime), Wayne Shorter (Stargazer). What was the reason for recording these albums and how do you approach these tribute albums?
There are so many inspiring figures, but what really turns me on is somebody that is pushing the boundaries of style and genre. It’s an approach I find really enriching. Examining the music of someone who was a pioneer and gave a lot of the progression of this music over time forces me to think about the way I think about music. I like to look at what that person’s legacy means to me, and how I can go further. That’s why when I make a tribute record I write a lot of the music. I feel it’s a tribute to the whole music and not just an interpretation of that person’s compositions. That's the way I like to approach music. It helps me to really focus closely on someone else who has done that and to try and learn from that spirit and move the music forward based on the legacy that has been given to us by that wonderful music.
In relation do you remember the first recordings that made an impact on you?
Yes: The Jackson Five, Billie Holiday, Cecil Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Beethoven, and Thelonious Monk.
Did Miles Davis have an influence on your music and to what extent? Were there other artists that you have found to be an inspiration to you?
Yes, an overwhelming influence on me, as on many artists. I have tried to make other influences clear in my dedications and thank yous. I continue to be inspired by many living artists. Ferus Mustafov is one you may know…
The album “Witness” is a politically influenced/ coloured record as it was inspired by and dedicated to writers, activists from all over the world, i.e. people who have conveyed their views through non-violent actions. What has been the effect of the events of September 11th on you and those you know in New York's music community?
Most of us would like to see these problems resolved without further resorting to violence. We find it important to agitate against the threat of war in the Middle East, and try to help each other in continuing to recover from our local tragedy.
What are some of the projects that you are currently working on?
Touring, a new electronic album (Freaked), practising the trumpet (never stops). I just finished the album and it's very much a studio album. I worked on it very closely with Jamie Saft. I came in with a whole bunch of new compositions and most of it we recorded me and Joey Baron and Brad Jones. And then we took things apart and we constructed them. Marc Ribot is playing on a lot of it, Ikue Mori, Jamie Saft of course, Craig Taborn, a couple of sax players and also this incredible guy who plays tabla and drums. His name is Karsh Kale and he also played on quite a bit of it.
As a person with great acquaintance and different interests D. Douglas is a fantastic interviewee. He has no problems to open himself and say what he thinks about his work, jazz and spare time activities.
I have read in one interview that you are an avid book reader. Could you recommend us some book(s) that you have read or currently reading?
Arnold Schoenberg's Journey by Allen Shawn. Tells the story of his life and how he came to make his music. Remarkable.
Can you tell us something more about your interests, activities and influences outside music?
Humor, yoga, tennis, history, dance, film, modern art, and activism for social justice and equality.
What is the most satisfying part of being an artist?
Having the opportunity to better oneself every day, and to really explore what one wants to say and has to say.
D. Douglas’ music by itself is re-examining the strict categorisations that exist within jazz and his music is classifiable into a category that is more than music. The very nature of Jazz is that it absorbs its “energy” from other musical styles. In this respect, Douglas might represent a new paradigm in jazz – jazz as a philosophy of music rather than a form or category of music.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue to learn, grow, and make music. And to have fun doing it.