Interview: Dave Douglas

Britt Robson

By Britt Robson

on 11.23.11 in Interviews

The career of jazz composer and trumpeter Dave Douglas has been prolific and intrepid, brimming with brash experiments and interdisciplinary artistic collaborations. Born in 1963, Douglas has, for the past 30 years, written and played original music incorporating everything from Eastern European folk to avant-garde jazz to rock-ish electronica, all injected with the spontaneous improvisation and top-notch scholarship that are the yin and yang of jazz. Along the way, he has worked in the realms of modern dance, film and spoken word/poetry, finding equally adventurous partners to help push his muse.

In 2011, Douglas has seized upon technological advances in disseminating digitalized music, releasing GPS — or the Greenleaf Portable Series — three different sets of original music recorded with three totally distinct ensembles. They include Rare Metals with his group Brass Ecstasy (which also released a live album earlier in the year); Orange Afternoons with a dream quintet that includes pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane; and Bad Mango with the new music ensemble So Percussion. Utilizing the capabilities of his seven-year old music label and website, Greenleaf Music, Douglas is offering up the GPS discs in a variety of formats and options, including a cloud, a mobile website and phone and tablet apps.

eMusic’s Britt Robson caught up with Douglas by phone in Berlin in November, where he was on tour with fellow trumpeter Enrico Rava before heading home for a four-night extravaganza in early December at the Jazz Standard in New York. That heralded engagement will feature each one of his three GPS ensembles on successive nights, preceded by another band whose live recording will likely become the fourth GPS release.


The last time we spoke, just a little more than a year ago, you were working on a painstaking collaboration with avant-garde film maker Bill Morrison, using archival footage to re-imagine the Frankenstein myth for “Spark of Being.” Since then, you’ve released four records, the last three of them more informal outings as the Greenleaf Portable Series. Is this hit-and-run experimentalism like a novelist writing short stories, a way to vary the creative process?

Yeah, I guess that’s a good analogy; or like, in playwriting, you imagine a cast when you write a piece. Especially when you are working with great improvisers, you want to write something that invites them into the story. Throughout my career, I’m constantly looking for different contexts to do what I do as a composer and a player. This year, having this new mode of music delivery, I said, “Wow, I can do all the things I want to do right now.”

You’ve said that these GPS releases gave you a chance to record with people you admire but rarely get to play with. How did the process unfold? Did you always envision three different bands, and with this exact personnel? Did you write specifically with them in mind?

I actually wanted to do four projects, but my manager has this brilliant way of bringing me back to reality and convinced me to stay with three at first. The fourth was Key Motion [a quintet that blends Douglas's Keystone Band with saxophonist Donny McCaslin and players from his Perpetual Motion album], who will play one of the four nights at the Jazz Standard and if all goes well we might record that as another GPS release.

The other groups came together in an interesting way, because all of the players are as busy as I am and everyone was sort of just able to drop what they were doing. I’d guess I’d have to say I’m always writing, and for me that process comes with me imagining collaborations. With Brass Ecstasy, of course, I’ve played and recorded with them before. The quintet with Ravi [Coltrane] and Vijay [Iyer] was inspirational and what I was writing for them wasn’t something you give to a normal quintet. And then I had worked with the group So Percussion in the past and had really wanted to work with them again because they are so amazing.

Let’s take the GPS discs in the order they were released. Rare Metals came about right after you toured and released a live album with Brass Ecstasy, but it’s still pretty much all new material.

The only song that was already around when we were touring in the summer [of 2010] was “Town Hall,” and I’m not sure why we didn’t do it that day [during the live recording at the Newport Jazz Festival]. I was trying to capture both this picture of a town hall on a village green somewhere in America and also the connotations of the town hall meetings where these angry, crazy political people started shouting — it is two sides of the coin of America.

But all the other pieces [for Rare Metals] I wrote in January of this year. I was given a composition residency to stay in Aaron Copeland’s house. They open it up to composers to be in his studio and write on his piano. Right after I moved in, there was this horrible shooting at the Safeway on Jan. 8 [of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords]. I was touched and wrapped up in that story; all the arguing and difficulty and complexity, this intense conversation that moved the nation. And being in Copeland’s house, where I could read his original score to “Fanfare to the Common Man,” it inspired me to write something that was engaged with the citizenry. So “Safeway,” the elegy of that event, was the first thing I wrote when sitting at his piano.

In retrospect, there were a lot of perfect fits during my time there. Not to be presumptuous or pretentious, but Copland was a champion of other American composers, and I really admire that. I had been reading about Duke Ellington and his work with Billy Strayhorn. I began toying with [the Strayhorn composition] “Lush Life,” as a way of paying tribute to an American composer who has been slightly overlooked. With Brass Ecstasy, we pull it apart a little bit and reharmonize it — I did that while staying at the Copland house. And “Thread” I wrote for another composer who is a hero of mine, Henry Threadgill. So, while maybe it is difficult for us to figure out how to be politically active sometimes, one thing we can surely do is support other artists and other composers.

The Brass Ecstasy session was the easiest to convene because we had toured together a whole lot. I could put everyone in a room and say, “Okay, here is a whole handful of new things that I wrote,” and then everyone found their own way rather quickly.

What about the second GPS release, Orange Afternoons? It seems like you cherry-picked your ideal quintet. You’ve mentioned Ravi and Vijay, but [bassist] Linda Oh and [drummer] Marcus Gilmore are also first-call musicians with great resumes.

I did cherry-pick. And if I could mention tangentially, Greenleaf will be putting out Linda Oh’s next record. This past summer she played bass on our festival tour and a terrific job.

I’ve known Ravi for a long time and we’ve done things together, but I wanted to write things for him that, well, it’s hard to put my finger on tunes we could play in the real book [standard repertoire].

Well, it seems like the songs you wrote are really integrated ensemble songs that grow on you over time.

That’s one of the reasons I wanted to call these folks. There are different ways of interpreting an all-star session. I am not one to do something where everyone shows off their chops. But now that you mention it, I just came in with the lead sheets and when we started playing, everyone was making suggestions; it was like, “Let’s not start right in on it; let’s play the bass part,” or “let’s play free.” Like, “Frontier Justice” — which, by the way, I wrote while I was on jury duty — operates so freely. It has a repetitive structure, but the way we approached it there was a tacit agreement not to do it in the usual way. The session came together pretty easily; I would say scheduling it for everybody was the hardest thing. We had access to this wonderful studio where both Orange Afternoons and the Brass Ecstasy sessions were done.

It was great to hear you with Vijay Iyer, who can be a very structured, mathematical pianist.

I think he plays really beautifully, very angular and beautiful. Listen to his intro on “The Gulf,” which was written after the BP oil spill. What he manages to do is so fluid and integrated with the sound of the band. It is also the piano in that studio, a huge Bosendorfer — go back and listen to him play it. And technically, a tune like “Orologi,” which has fairly radical time, I felt would be meat-and-potatoes for Vijay.

Why do you think you and Ravi play so well together?

We both love the same music and were schooled in the same way. “Solato,” I feel like Ravi really digs in on that one.

And then the last of the three GPS discs is the one with So Percussion — Bad Mango.

It’s funny to hear you say the title. That title came about because my 16-year old was coming through the room and I said, “What do you think I should call this song?” and without pausing he said “Bad Mango.” I said, “I can’t call it that,” but every time someone says it, everybody laughs, and with all the bizarre instruments and sounds it makes sense.

There’s a sense of mischief and fun in it that reminds me of one of your very first groups, the Tiny Bell Trio, but maybe that’s just because there is so much creative percussion and your drummer in that group, Jim Black, was so good.

These guys are into the deep polyrhythms the way Jim is, and that might be what you are hearing. I wrote some stuff that was incredibly difficult — I thought so, anyway — and they just pulled it right off. I first played a show with them in The Allen Room [a venue in New York City] probably about four years ago that they had put together with the electronic duo Matmos. I was on it and a harpist was on it and it was really fun. I’m glad they called me because sometimes for experimental music projects when they bring in a jazz person they want “jazzy” solos. But they knew what they wanted, which was me, thank goodness, and they knew me. The way they wanted the sound of the trumpet to go into their music made me want to work with them more and also envision writing tunes for them.

It turned out even better than I imagined. I originally thought the tunes would just be with non-pitched percussion instruments, but they came back at me and said, “We could use bass marimba, and field drums and pump organs,” and so with all that kind of stuff in there, there is a lot of harmony.

Your trumpet seems like it has to carry the narrative more on Bad Mango than on Rare Metals or Orange Afternoons, though, which I guess is inevitable when everyone else is a percussionist.

It was cool. It was another challenge that I wanted to put to myself. I’m not sure I totally agree that I was carrying the whole narrative — those are four fantastic players I was playing with — but I know what you mean about me being the only horn. Over the years, I’ve tried to maintain the thread of doing new contexts and not doing the same tactics over and over. It is about me challenging myself as a composer, but also it is for the audience. I have an enormous amount of respect for people coming to see me and hear me, and I don’t want to give them the same old thing. At least in my imagination they are excited to hear something new and that they maybe didn’t anticipate, like a trumpet with four percussionists.

That attitude probably has helped you keep abreast of all the changes in technology and your ability to control the means of production with Greenleaf. You’ve self-produced and self-released your music for awhile now, and I’m wondering how you feel the changes are going, and how GPS fits into it.

First of all, the self-releasing is going great; it is fantastic. But, that said, everything evolves and since its inception seven years ago, Greenleaf has had to evolve as the industry evolves.

I don’t know the absolute solution to the digitizing of info, but this is a time when artists can experiment and integrate with the changes in technology. I’m super excited about the GPS project because I know a lot of our fans are into the cloud and the streaming and the app, although I’m aware that the idea of the cloud is going to take some time. Like everyone else, we are going slowly, but just because we’ve introduced GPS doesn’t mean we are going to stop releasing CDs. The biggest thing for me, and I hope others who listen to my music, is that I can create options for them so they can create their own experience. They can just go and hear the streams at the website, they can buy some downloads or they can purchase the entire Greenleaf catalog. Giving people options to me is the best model for sustainability.