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The Boston Phoenix When Dave met Mary

Dave Douglas's history lessons

By Jon Garelick

JANUARY 24, 2000:  Over the past decade, the 36-year-old trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Dave Douglas has been coming on like a quiet storm that's gradually built into a roar. A denizen of New York's downtown scene, Douglas has often traveled in the company of a like-minded crew of eclectics that includes John Zorn, Don Byron, bassist Mark Dresser, drummer Kermit Driscoll, and violinist Mark Feldman. He's played in the bands of out-there compatriots like Anthony Braxton and Myra Melford but has also toured with hard-bop god Horace Silver, and he's begun to infiltrate the jazz polls (he was Jazz Times' "Artist of the Year" for 1999). And since 1993, he's been building a discography and a repertoire of original compositions that are, in their variety and sense of purpose, unlike any in jazz.

There may be other bandleaders as prolific as Douglas, but few are as focused. Straight-ahead and free players alike are happy to spew out one blowin' session after another -- working with standards or simple themes for jamming -- and see what sticks. Douglas's projects all have the mix of clarity, logic, and spontaneous whimsy that mark his trumpet solos, and they're all guided by explicit compositional strategies. He's produced (by my unofficial estimate) a dozen albums as leader since 1993, with at least four regular working bands. A string group he calls Parallel Worlds mixes violin, cello, and bass with drums and his own trumpet. His Tiny Bell Trio is trumpet, guitar, and drums. The Charms of the Night Sky band -- trumpet, accordion, violin, and bass -- comes to the Institute of Contemporary Art on January 29. And in February, Douglas's sextet makes its major-label debut with Soul on Soul: Celebrating Mary Lou Williams. And that's not counting a "pianoless" quartet that's released a couple of albums, or an octet including two synthesizer/sampler players that recorded the 1997 double-CD Sanctuary (Avant).

All these line-ups defy easy description. The Tiny Bell Trio favors Balkan folk melodies. Parallel Worlds mixes classical and jazz sources in Douglas's rapidly shuffled sectional writing. Charms of the Night Sky is a chamber group whose violin/accordion match-up gives it a European folk and café feel, with Douglas writing long melodic lines. The sextet draws most overtly on the jazz tradition, with its bebop front line of trumpet, tenor sax, and trombone and a standard piano/bass/drums rhythm section. Aside from Douglas's original compositions, any of these bands is as likely to draw from Weill, Webern, Messiaen, or Schumann as from Thelonious Monk or Wayne Shorter. Each of the sextet albums features a single dedicatee -- Williams or, in past projects, Shorter or trumpeter Booker Little. Even when Douglas picks a subject like Shorter (rather than the relatively obscure Little, who died in 1961 at age 23), he doesn't go for the obvious jazz standard. But a jazz feeling -- in much of the rhythmic content, in the use of blues, and especially in the improvisational demands he makes on his players -- informs all his work.

"I think first and foremost I like to challenge myself as a composer and a player," he explains over the phone from his home in New York. "And I like to challenge the people I'm playing with. So when I'm writing, I'm thinking of the personalities involved. That's more important than what the instruments are."

So, the focus is more on the personality of, say, Mark Feldman than on a part for violin?

"Absolutely. And what the interactions are within the group. And as these groups start to have some history of their own, it's also a question of 'What haven't we done before?' If I'm writing a tune, I'll say, 'Well, this is a place we've been before in other pieces.' So I'll try to stretch myself to find a new place that we can go, a new way that we can approach improvising together. A new sound. And new ways that the instruments themselves can function. For example, in Tiny Bell Trio, having trumpet, guitar, and drums -- just by dint of the instrumentation, each player has to think differently about the way his playing can function in the ensemble. I find that really fascinating. I also take off from things that I hear. I hear something either in the street or the concert hall or on a record and it will trigger some other idea that may not sound anything like what the inspiration was by the time it's done. But nonetheless there was a spark that happened." In the tribute albums, says Douglas (and in the individual pieces dedicated to other players throughout his other albums), he wants that spark to be merely a taking-off point, for the "innovative spirit of that person's music" to be the source of "something new."

The Williams album is perhaps his most integrated tribute project. Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) was a pianist and composer whose career spanned the history of jazz. She performed in vaudeville as a child, was the pianist and arranger (and ostensible music director) of Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy in the '30s, and later wrote for Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and -- at the inception of the bebop movement -- Dizzy Gillespie. Later her writing was tailored to her own piano trios, and her solos were known for taking in all of jazz history, from boogie-woogie to bebop and beyond. She even took on avant-garde lion Cecil Taylor in a historic concert that was -- as Douglas is quick to remind me -- her idea.

Soul on Soul starts with "Blue Heaven," Douglas's take on the Williams arrangement of the standard "My Blue Heaven." The tune's rolling piano-and-bass blues-vamp introduction screams "Blue Note!" But the tune and the album take off from there. Pianist Uri Caine offers up a Williams-style stride figure that goes delightfully haywire in the title tune before Douglas and tenor saxophonist Chris Speed trade call-and-response phrases that hark back to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. Throughout the album, Douglas varies ensemble passages by backing the soloist with choruses of horns or setting him off with contrasting cyclical cadences from the rhythm section. The blues and standard song form are alluded to, but Douglas writes in odd phrases lengths, and his pieces rarely conform to verse-chorus-verse symmetry.

"I was afraid to put 'Blue Heaven' first because it's so specific -- the reference," he acknowledges. "But it just ended up feeling really direct. You know, if I'm going to be talking about Mary Lou Williams, then this is really where she was coming from. A really loose jazz feeling. And I feel that the rest of the record goes to a different place."

Neither was Williams an obvious choice. "I can't say I knew that much about her in depth before I started doing this research. Horace Silver used to talk about her when I worked with him in '87. But when you're a young musician trying to push the boundaries, the last thing you want is to start going back in jazz. I can't remember exactly how it happened. Someone played her 'Zodiac Suite' for me, the trio version. It's got this incredibly modern compositional sense to it -- a lot of places where the key is changing really quickly with no set-up for it. A lot of quick tempo changes. And yet it's still swinging and relaxed. It's colorful. It's interesting music, and it really shocked me. And I started researching and listening, moving forward in her discography, and finding just more and more wonderful stuff in the '30s, in the '20s, and in the '60s, '70s. She was constantly challenging herself and looking forward, and I admire that and think that's a good way to be in life."

Williams's modernism shares an obvious affinity with Douglas's own, especially in his string group, where those changes "with no set-up" happen with lightning speed. "That's a group where maybe I have the most sophisticated relationship of improvisation to composition. So a lot of times what you're hearing is people improvising but within a very tightly structured strategy that comes directly from the composition. Sometimes I'll write an eight-bar section, for example, for the cello and say, 'Here's a suggestion of what I want you to do. But I want you to find your own part within this.' And then that leaves the player the freedom each time we get there to think about it a little differently and hopefully be influenced by what everyone else is doing. So if the bass player just did some gigantic thing right before, that will influence what Eric [Friedlander] plays in his eight bars. There are all kinds of little things like that where I try to bring in people's voices and really let them do their own thing and challenge them to find something interesting to play."

Besides being inspired by musical issues and by the personalities of the musicians he plays with, Douglas also writes pieces sparked by political incidents, literature, and art. On the Parallel Worlds album Convergence (Soul Note), "Tzotzil Maya" was written for murdered villagers in the Chiapas uprising and "Collateral Damages" for "victims on both sides" of the Gulf War. The long, freely improvised Sanctuary was inspired in part by Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi's dome for the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.

Douglas's varied inspirations, his questing mind, his wide circle of collaborators, guarantee a constantly evolving oeuvre, one difficult to pin down except for a kind of clarion aspiration and optimism you can hear in his trumpet playing, a lyricism and a melodic gift that nonetheless avoid easy or predictable patterns. When I ask him how he would describe the Charms of the Night Sky ensemble he'll be bringing to Boston on the 29th, he sighs and answers, "You know, I've been through this over and over again: how to describe Charms of the Night Sky. Right from the minute it was recorded with the label, they were saying, 'Wow this is great stuff. We've got to come up with something to call it that will alert people to that.' But I feel like for me the goal is that it shouldn't be anything. A lot of people hear some of Soul on Soul and go, 'Well, that's not jazz.' And Tiny Bell -- how would you define that? I think that's what interests me: to create something that is its own thing. That's not easily characterizable. So if you come up with a cogent description of Charms of the Night Sky, let me know, I'll buy it from you."

A Douglas discography

  • The Tiny Bell Trio (Songlines, 1993)
  • Parallel Worlds (Soul Note, 1994)
  • In Our Lifetime (New World, 1995)
  • Tiny Bell Trio, Constellations (hatHut, 1995)
  • Parallel Worlds, Five (Soul Note, 1996)
  • Sanctuary (Avant, 1997)
  • Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997)
  • Tiny Bell Trio Live in Europe (Arabesque, 1997)
  • Charms of the Night Sky (Winter & Winter, 1998)
  • Parallel Worlds, Convergence (Soul Note, 1998)
  • Magic Triangle (Arabesque, 1998)
  • Leap of Faith (Arabesque, 1999)
  • Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000)

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