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Dave Douglas

Dave Douglas Dave Douglas Jos L. Knaepen
The trumpet’s a strange, little instrument. A few feet of plated brass tubing on which legendary careers have been built. Yet like any instrument essentially a tool to produce sound - no two play are played alike. Consider and contrast the subdued, thoughtful delivery of Miles’ muted tone, the stratospheric blasts of Dizzy or the rich, burnished finish of Kenny Dorham; each distinctive and memorable, each pushing and exploiting various and separate boundaries of the instruments and music itself.

It might seem rare to describe a brass player as soft spoken, thoughtful and of measured speech, in essence, a Type B. But like Miles, Douglas evokes that very careful, exploratory essence and his presence shows on projects as diverse as Trey Gunn’s latest effort and working with Bill Frisell on Douglas’ own latest venture, "Strange Liberation" as well as for or five of his own lineups.

The pensive trumpeter also adds his own stamp to the fray on a number of very personal re-leases. Douglas is nothing if not thoughtful from his playing to the pauses between his collected responses to questions. He exudes respect for the moment at hand, and wanting to be clearly understood and represented at all costs.

And Douglas’ time has come. Of course many have been saying that for years. Aside from being a Grammy winner, JazzTimes made that clear by making him their cover feature when he won their critics poll for "Jazz Artist of the Year" in ’99. Not surprisingly, Downbeat, Jazziz and The prestigious New York Jazz Awards all agreed, lauding him with their trumpeter, jazz artist and/or composer of the year awards. Not bad for someone considered one of the ‘fringe artists’ prior to his recording debut in ’93, which finally and fortunately brought his abilities to a far wider audience.

Following on the heels of the highly acclaimed "Freak In" and "The Infinite", Douglas’ forthcoming CD, "Strange Liberation", with his current lineup augmented with guitarist Bill Frisell a perfect foil for the horn - was released on January 27, 2004 on Bluebird/BMG.

When Pat Metheny refers to Jazz as "a verb, a process, a way of being, a way of thinking", (and living for that matter), and insists it’s "a music that demands change", as he did in a recent Downbeat article, he’s shaking trees, seeking like minds, challenging and separating the posers/ historians from the live, in-the-moment, stalwarts of edge. And Douglas, for one is already there - living it.

JazzReview: Man, you have got a lot of working bands! The different music for the Quartet, Quintet, Sextet, Septet, Tiny Bell trio and a half dozen other projects.

Dave Douglas: Well, I guess I always say: one day at a time; focus on one thing.

JazzReview: How do you keep track of it all?

Dave Douglas: You know, for me its not a job, it’s just fun. It’s what I love to do. I work a little bit everyday and you know, it’s a challenge to be involved in different kinds of music and be composing all the time. But those are the kinds of challenges that I think are fun and composing keeps me in touch with my friends (laughs), the people I play the music with. I guess I feel fortunate to be able to be out there performing music and recording it, documenting it.

JazzReview: When you write, are you thinking about particular people that you’re going to have play it or how do go about being involved in that process?

Dave Douglas: I usually think about the people. If not individual, I think about the kind of player that I’m writing for. So if I’m writing a chamber music piece, I’m thinking about a person who is a virtuoso, but maybe not an improviser. But if I’m writing a piece for my quintet, I’m thinking about someone like Chris Potter who’s incredibly adept at understanding a composition, and playing a part that’ll have his own spin that’ll make the piece stronger.

JazzReview: What about the actual process itself. Is there anything that you go through repeatedly or is it always different? Do you use a piano; do it in your head?

Dave Douglas: The process of composing? It’s hard. It’s painstaking. There’s no easy answer, sadly enough. I mean, I think if there was a pill that you could take and then you would just be able to write great music all the time that would be wonderful.

JazzReview: Absolutely. Does it get easier for you though? I mean, when you sit down do things tend to flow more easily sometimes than others?

Dave Douglas: I think that some of the technology aspects of it are easier for me, but the basic creative thrust is always just as challenging. The technology of putting notes on the paper and then translating them to the player, I pretty much do it all on paper. Paper and pencil.

JazzReview: That’s good to know that someone’s still doing it that way.

Dave Douglas: (laughs) I tried some years ago, in the early 90’s, I was using some Notator software. I felt like certain things I wanted to write, I could write faster just by writing them with my hand. But I also feel that when I give music to the players that there’s a personal relationship there that comes across in a handwritten score that you lose when it’s from a computer.

JazzReview: Kind of a psychological thing.

Dave Douglas: I think so. And I also think that when I know I’m a sideman and I’m playing a piece that’s written music, a lot of the way that you approach it has to do with what it looks like. I’ve always believed that to really make music the way that I wanted to I had to memorize the stuff. So by the time that I get on stage, I’m not really looking at the music anymore. What helps me to remember it is where the thing was on the page. So I may have in my mind all the various parts of the piece somewhere, but when I get to the bridge it helps me to think, ‘Oh, that was that thing at the top of the second page’, the bridge. You know, right where it should be. Whereas with the Notator thing, sometimes the big landmarks of a piece just fall in a haphazard place: the middle of the third page in the middle of the fourth line. And I think that’s a real barrier to the performer understanding it, but even as a composer having a firm grasp of the form.

JazzReview: That’s a good point because I know exactly what you mean. The software can’t be ‘thinking’ about how the human is going to actually function or interface with it and we naturally are when we write something down - probably don’t even think about the fact that we’re thinking about it. It’s just there.

Dave Douglas: Right. It’s just bigger because it’s the more important thing.

JazzReview: You’ve got some amazing people in the quintet (for "Strange Liberation"): Uri Caine, Chris Potter, James Genus and Clarence Penn. They’re part of the normal lineup, but you’re being joined by Bill Frisell? How did that happen?

Dave Douglas: Oh, I’ve wanted to work with Bill since about the mid-80’s. One of my heros, really as a composer and a player - so unique. And it’s really daunting to realize that he was actually going to do it and I was going to have to write this music for him, ‘cause he’s such a great composer. It took me a long time to sit down and get over those initial fears and start really writing the music.

You know, I’ve played with him here and there over the years, but never really sat down and got the chance to do a whole book of music with him. And I thought that his personality would interact with the quintet really interestingly. Some of the tunes on the album are the quintet as we’ve been playing on the road, like "Seventeen", for example. But I wanted to throw this wrinkle into the record and push us in another direction.

JazzReview: How did you feel about how it came out, and how did he interface and work in with the group the way you’d imagined?

Dave Douglas: I think it was really a challenge for everybody; that’s what I like. Like I hear the tension of us thinking and working and playing and, you know, I think it just came out really, really well. It was a whole lot of new music that we basically recorded in two days, so it’s a very spontaneous kind of sound, which I like.

JazzReview: He’s not joining you on tour?

Dave Douglas: No, it’s definitely a quintet thing. We will be playing some of this music, but of course it will be different, and of course I look forward to that.

JazzReview: In your formative years you attended Berklee, NYU and the NEC. Can we talk about how you first approached the trumpet, influences and improvisation, and how you developed your sound? It gets talked about a lot: your tone.

Dave Douglas: Oh, well thank you. I don’t know. I guess I never really thought about it that much. Like I’d recommend to anybody, I transcribed a lot of trumpet players and tried to emulate people: Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro and Miles, of course. I still listen to Miles a lot. Freddie Hubbard, Bird and Woody Shaw. I think Woody was really my guy.

JazzReview: Did you ever listen to people like Kenny Dorham or Blue Mitchell or Lee Morgan; the Bluenote sound?

Dave Douglas: Yeah, oh yeah. I guess I tried to understand why people were playing what they were playing and what it meant in terms of history; what came before and what came after. So when I discovered players like Bikeida Carroll and Lester Bowie and Herb Robertson, who all influenced me a lot, I was able to understand where they were coming from and why they were doing what they were doing. It really pushed me to try to expand my own vocabulary as a player.

JazzReview: Absolutely. Among the leaders you originally worked with were Horace Silver, Don Byron and Tim Berne. How did working with these artists shape your own conceptions and approach? What did you learn from them?

Dave Douglas: With Horace it was really maybe some kind of a finishing school in terms of playing bop. I had always wanted to come up and be a Jazz Messenger and in the intervening years. What that meant changed. It became much more rigorous. When I was a teen I got to meet them when Valerie Polmonorov was in the band and that was a real high for me. So I had been checking out Woody Shaw and lots of modern chordal players and I was trying to do all this stuff that I thought was really sneaky, that Horace I don’t know whether he saw through it or whether I was just not It was just forced, lets put it that way.

JazzReview: When you say sneaky, what are you saying?

Dave Douglas: You know, chromatic and in and out of the chord and substitutions, and odd intervals and all the kind of music-schooly stuff that when musicians get turned on and really start studying music, that for some reason gravitate towards that. Maybe I was missing some of that basics. He always actually talked to me about Blue Mitchell and he actually talked to me about Mary Lou Williams, too. I was 23, and of course when you’re 23, you still know everything (laughs).

JazzReview: Yeah, oh yeah, just for a little while longer (laughs).

Dave Douglas: (laughs) I didn’t need to hear any of that stuff. But in later years, especially with Mary Lou, when I later checked her out and wrote a project around her, it was a big influence. But Horace would kind of Vincent Herring was the other horn player in the band and we’d been playing together in the streets of New York so we kind of knew each other. And in rehearsal, Horace would pick apart our playing. It was really interesting because it wasn’t like he was saying that this note’s wrong and this note’s right, it was more like how you got from this chord to that chord was wrong The voice leading was really paramount for him and it opened my eyes to a different way of thinking about chord playing. A lot of us come up after Coltrane and so we hear D minor and then you just go absolutely wild in a chromatic way. And that’s not at all where that was coming from. I think hearing from that Horace was a really powerful influence on me.

JazzReview: But it didn’t have an immediate effect.

Dave Douglas: Well, I think it took me awhile to digest it and work on it. It’s something that I still think about even in the most abstract, free, crazy situations: voice leading and getting from one place to another - you know, what is the movement of the music here? Where are we going with this? It was important for me. And then getting to play with Don was a whole other eye-opener. First of all that he taught to me Klezmer music by saying, "Learn this entire book by Mickey Katz" (laughs). Pretty much in a couple days because there was some situation where somebody was unable to be at a gig and I had to fill in. So it was really like boot camp, learning a whole new vocabulary. And then I think being around Don at that time, in the early 90’s, as a bandleader was a really pretty inspiring. An extremely intelligent guy and extremely knowledgeable about music somebody who’s putting together projects that have a real point of view and a real statement about what’s going on, both historically and now. And with the virtuosity on his instrument to pull it off. Then you asked about Tim Berne. Wow. Have you met Tim?

JazzReview: No, I haven’t.

Dave Douglas: Tim was a big one for me, ‘cause I had heard his album "Sanctified Dreams." I was listening to it a lot and he was playing with Bill and Hank Roberts and a lot of other musicians I was really into: Joey Baron. And I think as a composer it influenced me a lot at the time because there was so much that was written. At least that’s what it seemed like to me, that he really puts in a lot of work writing these long compositions. Over the years, his compositions got longer and longer, but to play some of that stuff really blew me away. At the time I had met Herb Robertson, to the trumpet player. I sat next to him in the Walter Thompson Big Band and that really opened my eyes to other ways of approaching the horn sonically. So to play Tim’s stuff, it was just a way that I hadn’t really thought of making music before. It made me feel like I could get more involved, get my hands dirty as a composer - getting away from lead sheets and getting into fuller compositions. But as it turned out, Tim’s stuff, once you’ve taken it apart and looked at it and understood it, you could think of that as a lead sheet, what he does. It doesn’t say that there’s not the same amount of work, but a lot of what I thought was written was actually improvised. And it’s still important to me, as you know, that the composition really be integrated in with the improvisation. There is a specific strategy and a reason for the improvisation to happen that comes from the piece itself, and not just something that you would play on any other piece. That each one has its own vocabulary.

JazzReview: That’s a good point. But it’s kind of rare that you would hear improvisation backed by something written and not be able to tell the difference, wouldn’t it?

Dave Douglas: You might be surprised (laughs).

JazzReview: Maybe so.

Dave Douglas: I also think it’s hard to, at this point, divide what’s improvised and what’s written from each other, because even the sketch of a tune, if you know who you’re writing for, you’re asking them to take that as a gesture and run with it. So at the end of the day, how much was written and how much was improvised is really hard to say. It’s a little of both, its all mixed in.

JazzReview: You’re the artistic director at Banff (International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music) for 2004. You must enjoy the process of passing on what you’ve learned.

Dave Douglas: It’s challenging and I never thought that I would be a teacher. I guess I still don’t think of myself as a teacher. When I started talking about what I do, it opened up my eyes to a lot of thought process that I wasn’t even aware were going on. So I feel like I learn as much as anybody else when I go up there. And this year there’s an incredible faculty. Frisell is coming, Jason Moran, Sam Rivers, George Lewis, James Genus, Clarence Penn. I get to hear them talk about music, how they think about music. A lot of the students ask really great questions and they’re also composing and thinking about these same kinds of issues. So we share all of that and I talk about how I work and how I’ve practiced music over the years.

JazzReview: Do you actually ever talk about music with your band members?

Dave Douglas: No, we talk about it, unless we don’t need to. If something just clicks, then no one ever says anything. But a lot of times when you come in with a composition that maybe has some wrinkles in it - different wrinkles than the last wrinkles (laughs) I think it helps to talk about it. And I’m always willing as a bandleader to hear what people have to say. Not that I would always do it, but if the drummer says, "If I play this part like this I think it’ll work better," that’s really something to listen to and then decide.

JazzReview: Just a minute ago we were talking about passing on the knowledge and experience you’ve acquired. How would you want to shape and affect others’ conceptions or what would you want to pass on to them?

Dave Douglas: Just my music. I don’t think I would want to shape anybody. I think everybody’s capable of shaping themselves. I just feel like the music I love it, I love doing it and I do it because I loved all the music that came before. So if I can pass on the music, that would be great.

JazzReview: What are your upcoming projects?

Dave Douglas: I’m getting married in 2004.

JazzReview: Oh, congratulations. Great.

Dave Douglas: Making a little time for that. Very exciting. And I’m working on a new album of electronic music for lack of a better word; a follow-up for "Freak In." And I’m teaching myself all the software. I can get my hands a little messier with that.

JazzReview: What software would that be?

Dave Douglas: Protools. I’m just in the beginning stages of developing ideas and writing little things.

JazzReview: Do you use an M-box?

Dave Douglas: Yeah, they’re great.

JazzReview: When you speak of trying to extend the traditional language of jazz, how do you see that and approach that task?

Dave Douglas: Well, unlike a lot of people like, my background in education really was in jazz. That’s not any kind of qualitative statement, but a lot of my friends and people I work with have been playing pop music their whole lives, or classical music, world music or different kinds of things. I look around and realize there really was something unique about trying to play standards when I was really, really young, and listening to all the different traditions of jazz music from this country.

I feel like the people that I admire a lot in music are very progressive and it still sounds fresh. And they’re really thinking about the people that came before, like Coltrane working with the forms of Charlie Parker and then adding these incredible leaps of harmonic information and writing new heads for that and new names for them.

JazzReview: Right, "Satellite," "Giant Steps."

Dave Douglas: Yeah, you know, those kinds of leaps really interest me. I feel like that in a lot of different ways. I’m taking the music that came before and trying to broaden the vocabulary; try new things to what can be done with it.

JazzReview: I know you’re also involved in human rights and political causes such as Amnesty International, Doctors without Borders? Did you want to talk about that at all?

Dave Douglas: Well, it’s hard for me to live in the world and not be involved in those things. Yes, you can pretend that is going on, but especially with the current administration in Washington, it’s very frustrating to see things that are happening that I feel are very unjust. I don’t feel like my music is political per se, but I have this platform. I try to draw attention to issues where I can.

JazzReview: Do you see it as different when you go to places like Europe?

Dave Douglas: Over the last couple of years I feel like I’ve been going to Europe and having to apologize (laughs). I really do, because people that I know in Europe ask me what’s going on over there. Why does your government feel that none of the rules or standards of international law apply to them? And I have no answer. All that I can say is that there are still people who are still thinking and activating in the states, that all is not lost. And I know Bush is very popular and that’s why he’s the president. I’m not trying to say that these people are all idiots or anything like that, but I do feel that if we look at our place in the world and the environment, that things could be done better and we could be acting in the world and not alienating so many people around the globe. I fear that a lot of people in this country maybe aren’t aware that this is happening.

JazzReview: I hope that they understand that we are not our government.

Dave Douglas: But we have to try to change it. We have to be involved and so many people in this country have just given up being involved. It’s very painful and difficult, but it’s just another thing that we have to do.

Mike Brannon is guitarist/writer for the Synergy Group ( Their latest release is "Barcodes" w/ members of King Crimson and the Grammy-winning Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. The follow-up, "Later", w/ special guests, Bill Evans, Harvie S [Swartz], Paul Wertico and others, TBA, will be released on Nextep in early 2004.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Dave Douglas
  • Interview Date: 2/1/2004
  • Subtitle: The Essence of Horn
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