Photo by Steve Nash

RCA Victor



Is there a more hotter name in improvised music than
Dave Douglas? I have been pubbing him for years and I have been beaming from ear to ear, seeing him sweep the New York Jazz Awards and garnering such widespread media and public appeal. He is "the" man. Of this hour and any other. I present to you, the finest improviser / composer in this music, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.

DAVE DOUGLAS: I started on piano when I was really little, like five or something. I started playing trombone at seven and switched to trumpet at nine.

FJ: What prompted the switch?

DAVE DOUGLAS: Oh, it was just cooler. I listened to a lot of music. In high school, I was really into progressive rock and Frank Zappa and electric Ornette, which was happening at the time, electric Miles, even Return to Forever, Mahavishnu Orchestra. So I didn't have a language that was connected to playing the trumpet. Music was just the music. It was when I started improvising on trumpet that things started to make a little more sense. And then I went through a number of years where I was just practicing intensely. I practiced for maybe ten hours a day, figuring out how to make music on this awful piece of metal. So that is kind of how I came to it.

FJ: Influences?

DAVE DOUGLAS: My earliest listening experiences weren't really related to the trumpet. I would say that Billie Holiday was my first musical influence. I think that in terms of music in general, I generally cite John Coltrane, Igor Stravinsky, and Stevie Wonder as my three primary influences in music. Specifically the trumpet, of course, Miles Davis is the giant of twentieth century music, I think. Woody Shaw was the trumpet player that I most studied and emulated. I like to listen to all trumpet players and as time goes by, I listen more closely to trumpet players.

FJ: Did you receive formal training?

DAVE DOUGLAS: Yeah, I did. I had little classical music lessons. I was always an awful classical music player because I could never play anything the same way twice. I would just close my eyes and start embellishing, which is a no no.

FJ: What was your first professional gig?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I think my first my first paid gig was when I was fifteen. I was doing a school year abroad in Barcelona, Spain and I had run into this group of people my age who were playing music, jazz, and samba, and salsa, and kind of anything we could play. We had some Weather Report covers. I think my first gig was with them at an outdoor festival or something.

FJ: Let's touch on a your work with John Zorn in his Masada group.

DAVE DOUGLAS: John is a really good friend. I was honored to be asked to play this book of compositions he calls Masada. I learn from him every time we go out and play. I also have the feeling like he is relates closely to what I play. I feel free to have a voice in that music, but it is very much his band. 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.

FJ: And Myra Melford?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I was just talking to Myra about half an hour ago. I have a collaboration with her because we have both had a chance to play each other's music. I've played in her band and she's played in one of my bands. I think what is unique about her is that her process of composing and arranging is a very organic one. Each piece is built from the ground up. There is a very human quality to all of her records that you will hear if you put them on. She has an incredibly intense relationship with her instrument, so the first tour I did with her, which was probably in '94, maybe '93, we had this duo in one of her pieces and it just got more and more frenetic as the tour went along. And one night, it seemed like we had gotten as frenetic as we could get and then one night all of the sudden it was like the most mellow thing I had ever played. It is really like a living music. To me, that says that this is a process. This is not about recreating a moment, but about a living music that is changing or growing and able to move on.

FJ: Let's talk about your various bands and the colorful textures you are able to obtain from the different instrumentations, first, the infamous Tiny Bell Trio.

DAVE DOUGLAS: Infamous, thank you, Fred. You know, the Tiny Bell Trio was born of necessity. I had this gig that I was doing as a duo with an accordion player and the accordion player moved out of town and went back to Switzerland. I didn't want to lose the gig, so I had to get like this group that could be really small and fit into a tiny corner of this Bell Café in SoHo, but that could also play this Eastern European folk music repertoire that I was working on. It was right after Jim Black and Brad Schoeppach had moved to New York. My first playing with Brad was playing Monk tunes, me and Brad and a drummer. He's this kind of musician who can cover all the parts just all by myself, like he didn't need me. So to bring him into a group with no bass was kind of a natural. Jim was someone who was studying these rhythms at the time, these Balkan odd meter rhythms and was into playing a severely scaled down percussion set. So we were literally, really sitting on top of each other in this club and we played every Friday night for a year and a half, developing the repertoire, and that's when I started writing original music in the style of these Balkan tunes. We left the Café in '94 and never went back. We actually tried to go back once and it wasn't possible.

FJ: The Charms of the Night Sky Quartet with Greg Cohen on bass, Mark Feldman on violin, and Guy Klucevsek on accordion.

DAVE DOUGLAS: It was really when I heard a solo concert of Guy Klucevsek, I guess in early '98, late '97, that I was sitting through this whole concert ready to scream because the whole Charms of the Night Sky kind of unfolded while I was watching his concert (laughing). I did not know him and so I went up and introduced myself and then a few weeks later, went out to his house and we played some music together and we started writing music for that record. Now it is a group that toured quite a bit and we just, a couple of weeks ago finished our second record, which will be released in October on RCA Victor. Mark Feldman, of course, I have a fifteen-year history with this guy, playing in lots of different groups from the Mosaic Sextet, to New and Used, to my String Group, Don Byron's Plays the Music of Mickey Katz, Uri Caine's Mahler Projects. We have been paired together in lots of projects over the years. It was a natural for me, to bring Mark in.

FJ: Is it challenging to play void a traditional rhythm section?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I think that, for me, in a percussionless ensemble like that, the bass is probably the key instrument of all in terms of holding it down, but also Greg Cohen is someone who thinks like a composer, like an arranger. He's a fantastic composer and arranger and so I give him a lot of responsibility in shaping the dynamics and the tempo and the harmonic structure of the piece.

FJ: Aren't you a bit weary about your considerable utilization of the accordion, with all of the innuendos and jokes surrounding it?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I guess it depends where you live. I think the accordion is a beautiful instrument. Guy Klucevsek is one of the most foremost performers in the world on this instrument. He has a special instrument, which he may be one of the few people that can switch between the various different accordion systems, whether the left hand is free and chromatic or whether the left hand plays chords in the old-fashioned style. He can really go back and forth and play the most traditional polka and play the most abstract chromatic, twenty-first century music available.

FJ: You have a formidable quartet. I have seen it with both Mark Turner on tenor, here in Los Angeles and Chris Potter on tenor in New York, with Ben Perowsky and James Genus. That quartet just released the Leap of Faith album for the Arabesque label, will you continue to keep that band together?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I hope to. All three of those guys are some of the busiest people in the business now. It's tricky. I have tried to schedule things with Chris Potter over the last year or so and it's been really hard, which is a good thing because he should be busy. He's one of the greatest players on the instrument. James Genus, I have a long history with also. I toured with him in Vincent Herring's group in the late '80s. As you know, Fred, he also plays in my Sextet on this new RCA Victor record. Ben is just a find. Now he is playing with John Scofield so I'm not sure how free he is going to be. In a way, it is the most unique of all my bands because there are no cover tunes. It's all original and I try to write blowing tunes. You might say latter day jazz standards is the approach and so it has a lot of energy.

FJ: Emphasizing the blowing aspect of that band, I have seen you literally play every portion of the trumpet with that quartet, even taking out the valves and whistling on them.

DAVE DOUGLAS: Well, I think music for me is sound and I try to use as many different elements of sound as I can and explore the full range. To me, being a trumpet player, that means trying to go beyond the more traditional uses of the trumpet and find other ways of having sounds. On occasion, that does mean dismantling the instrument itself and using different parts of it to make sounds. I'm aware that this could be construed as gimmicky, so I try to only use it in a musical situation and not have it be some kind of show thing or theatrical element.

FJ: Have you been accused of that?

DAVE DOUGLAS: No, only by myself (laughing).

FJ: Is the RCA Victor contract an exclusive?


FJ: So you have ceased recording for Arabesque, Winter & Winter, or Soul Note?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I won't be until I get dropped and then I will go back to being an independent recording artist. The contract that I signed with them is pretty clear-cut. They want me to make four records and they are going to release them over two years, which is basically two records a year. They want me to do a different project on each one, which is the way I work. It really suits me well and they seem to be really excited about what I am doing and they are encouraging me to do exactly what I want and not to try and change anything.

FJ: You have been such a prolific recorder in the last few years, it must be refreshing to slow down a bit?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I've been putting out a lot of records. I try to make each one different. Each one is a really unique project, within the group also. Each Sextet record should be different and each Tiny Bell Trio record should be different. It should be a new territory. So in a way, this RCA contract is the best of both worlds. I can continue with each group at a slightly slower pace. It's probably for the best for me and the listeners, for my poor fans.

FJ: Let's talk about Soul on Soul, your inaugural session for RCA Victor. You play the music of unheralded pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, a risky selection for a major label debut.

DAVE DOUGLAS: Well, I look at this record in the continuum of the Sextet records. The first two were also tribute records, on which I wrote a lot of music for two heroes of mine, Booker Little and Wayne Shorter. It was time for another Sextet record and I was looking around. There are so many inspiring figures, but what really turns me on is somebody that is pushing the frontiers of style and genre and someone who remains contemporary over a long period of time and pushes themselves and has a complete vision of the music that they want to make. It's not really just being a great instrumentalist. It is envisioning a whole world of music and a whole sound. 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. It's the same personnel that is on the first two records and so in a sense, it's really like we had history together. I would really write specifically for these great players (Uri Caine, Joshua Roseman, Greg Tardy, Chris Speed, James Genus, and Joey Baron) and take the next step in the music that we make together. I had a difficult relationship with mainstream jazz for a lot of years. I felt like I wanted to get entirely away from it. Writing for this band has made it possible to come back and really think about those things. That's my background. I came up playing standards and wanting to play with Art Blakey. This is a way for me, as a composer and as a player, to deal with that. Having players there that have a modern language that is all their own is so much more inspiring.

FJ: You touched on the album that is already in the can that is slated for release in October with the Charms of the Night Sky Quartet.

DAVE DOUGLAS: That's right.

FJ: Do you have another project past the planning stage?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I do. I have a new group called Witness, a larger ensemble that, for me, follows up where Sanctuary (Avant) left off, that double record from a few years ago. You can get the personnel on my website, which is brand new (Personnel: Chris Speed, saxophone, clarinet; Joshua Roseman, trombone; Erik Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Bryan Carrott, vibraphone; Drew Gress, bass; Ikue Mori, electronic percussion; Michael Sarin, drums).

FJ: The URL?

DAVE DOUGLAS: People can go there and get a description of what it's about. It looks like that will be my third record for RCA Victor.

FJ: You and your peers, Uri Caine, John Zorn, and Don Byron, combine elements of other forms of music into your compositions, doesn't it concern you that traditionalist standard bearers will malign you for what they may perceive as blasphemy?

DAVE DOUGLAS: I think that the jazz scene is painted as being very polarized because it sells magazines. But I really don't think that there are a lot of mainstream people who would malign me because of this approach. I think everyone has their own approach. Musicians know that what works is when something is fresh and when there is integrity behind it. If it is inspired, it doesn't matter what style it is and what period and that is all there is to it. I think that a lot is made of this issue, of the argument about what is jazz and what is valid and what is authentic and it is a very interesting argument, and it is interesting to hear what people say about it, but ultimately, when it comes to the music, there is good music and there is bad music. It doesn't go much beyond that.

FJ: You are garnering a great deal of attention from the mainstream press and the Dave Douglas bandwagon is standing room only, it must be gratifying.

DAVE DOUGLAS: I'm just glad that people are hearing the music and the music is being made available and that I have an opportunity to do it the way I want to do it. I am putting out there something that is honest and that I really feel like doing. I can go down to the Village Vanguard and play what I want with the musicians I want to play with. So in a sense, the recognition has made all that possible. So it has been very gratifying.

FJ: The weight of the expectations must be heavy.

DAVE DOUGLAS: Not really, no, because my own expectations are so high anyway (laughing). When I go to compose, it is hard. It has always been hard. It hasn't gotten any easier. I just feel like you have to play music with joy and you have to take everything that is going on in the world and do a count when you make your music and that takes a lot of agonizing self-examination to determine how you want to deal with that. That all goes into the music. That's where the pressure is.

FJ: Is there enough time in the day to do the simple things?

DAVE DOUGLAS: Oh, I love going to movies, museums. I like to ride my bike (laughing). I like to talk with my friends, hang out, and listen to music. I have been doing yoga now, pretty regularly for about five years. That keeps me healthy, especially with all this traveling. It has really made it possible for me to do what I am doing. I keep a pretty low profile actually.

FJ: It seems like it.

DAVE DOUGLAS: And I like it that way.

Fred Jung is the Editor-In-Chief and would like to drape the world in velvet. Comments? Email him.