When trumpeter Dave Douglas played at Dazzle just over a year ago as part of Greg Garrison's Improvised Roots series, he was introduced to Crooked Still's Aoife O'Donovan, who sang during the sets. Douglas went on to recruit O'Donovan -- who is also joining Douglas's two-night stand at Dazzle this week -- for last year's gorgeous album Be Still. Douglas, one of the world's leading improvisers, is set to release the followup, Time Travel, recorded during the same sessions as Be Still, today on his own Greenleaf imprint.
We caught up with Douglas recently and talked to him about collaborating with O'Donovan, touring fifty states in celebration of his fiftieth birthday, and how David Toomey's book, The New Time Travelers, inspired Time Travel. Douglas also gave us his take on the state of jazz today and playing with John Zorn's Masada.
Westword: When you played as part of Greg Garrison's Improvised Roots last year, was that the first time you met Aoife O'Donovan?
Dave Douglas: That's right.
What was it about her singing that resonated with you?
I just think her voice is so natural and pure and direct. You know, very emotional without overdoing it. I guess "overdoing" is the wrong word: It's very emotional but in a universal way. To me, anyway, it felt like that. The music I was working on at that time was coming from a folk and a hymnal feeling. It was just so naturally suited to the way she sings.
And then beyond that, she's blessed with an incredible, natural instrument, which she's working really heard on, and then she's also a really well trained musician. So, in that Improvised show, we were doing some of the pieces of mine that I hadn't intended to have a voice on that are very difficult to sing. She just sang fantastic.
I was really grateful to Greg Garrison for bringing me out and introducing me to Aoife, and also and I didn't really know... I know Ron Miles and I know Rudy Royston and a few players that are out here [in New York] like Shane Endsley. But I really didn't know much about the Denver scene, which is so rich and wonderful. Hugh Ragin is another guy from New York who's out there. So to be introduced to all that was really great, and this tour that I'm doing in April comes directly out of all that.
A belated happy fiftieth birthday. Can you tell me about your plan for hitting the fifty states? Sounds like quite the year you've got ahead of you.
Well, when I turned forty, I did a big retrospective here in New York and played with all the groups I had done over the years, and I felt like this time, with fifty, I didn't want to do the whole thing. We're playing this week in New York at Jazz Standard, but I wanted it to be geographically more interesting, so I was looking for a challenge. That's the way I work sometimes (laughs). I thought, "Why not try to play in all fifty states?" I've played in more countries than I've played in states.
Working on this project, I realized that some of the challenges are that the distances are so great, but also we don't have a natural infrastructure for jazz and the arts in America, and we're very geographically isolated. The fact that I wasn't aware of how rich the scene was in Denver is a case in point.
So a lot of the places I'm going, I'm playing with musicians from the area as well as bringing my own band. We're not finished yet, obviously. It's a huge project, bigger than I had anticipated. Part of it is that the music that I write and play -- I wouldn't say that it's particularly challenging, but it's not middle-of-the-road pop music that appeals to everybody -- lets put it that way.
But there's a lot of people -- young people, old people, all kinds of people -- who are really searching for alternatives and looking for that personal connection with artists. That's what I see as being the most heartening thing. And some of the places that we're going, it's kind of like we're validating the dreams of the one lunatic who wants to see this stuff happen. And there are all these other people who come out and want to hear it, and there's a lot of excitement, but it takes a lot of energy to organize. So my hat is off to people like Kevin [Lee] at Dazzle, who's creating such a rich tapestry of work.
What's your take on the state of jazz today?
The music itself?
I think it's the richest time we've ever seen. I think there's more great work being done now by a more diverse range of artists than I've ever seen, looking at the history of the music. And it's incredibly inspiring, I think. There's a fear that there's almost too much, that there's not enough work. But I think that the vitality and form supersedes that.
I see young musicians coming up, and they know so much more than I did when I was at that age and are really well trained -- but I know that "well trained" is a loaded term that some people see as a negative thing, like there's this fear that the jazz schools are turning out clones and robots who just regurgitate... And I just don't really see it that way. I mean, there is some element of that happening, but more often than not I see young musicians who know about all kinds of music and are really wide open and curious and don't want to be trapped in one particular sound -- wide open and doing their own thing -- and I find that inspiring.
You've done all sorts of projects. What's the inspiration for going down all those various avenues?
I think every day you have to find a new mode to express what you have to say, and the deeper you go, the wider you cast your glance. Like if you're married to someone, you can't just say the same thing to them day after day. Everything changes, everybody changes. Once I've done a project or once I've had a band, I certainly believe in going deep within that music, but at a certain point it's time to move on and do the next thing.
I don't really like to repeat myself, and I also really -- there's so much great music. I didn't grow up in the iPod generation, but I did grow up hearing all sorts of stuff -- jazz and classical and folk and pop, you name it. So I think as a composer and a bandleader, you sort of have to always be vigilant that you're not just re-creating something that you've heard somewhere because those influences are in there. No matter what you do, everything that you hear, all the interactions that you have become a part of who you are and what you have to say. So then part of the job is to take all that and turn it into something that's really your own, that's not just repeating something else.
Moving on to Time Travel... Obviously David Toomey's book party inspired the album. Can you expand on that?
I think following on the heels of Be Still, which was really sort of a celebration of my mom and all the things that she loved and wanted, I realized how much music takes us through time in a way that maybe the physical world doesn't, or that we know of doesn't. This idea in the way that Toomey talks about it -- it's kind of funny aspect to it as well -- but if you think about it, you know, your musical memories, we all have these musical memories that are so powerful.
The first time we heard such and such a song, or some song comes on the radio and it reminds us of a specific time in the past. Or also, sometimes you hear some music and it takes you forward in time, I think. Like it opens you up to a new possibility that you hadn't imagined, and I see that as sort of moving forward.
So it started from that idea, and then some of the writing, like the tune "Time Travel," uses the idea of time and interlocking arts in an interesting kind of way. When we play it live, it really opens up into some interesting territory.
You Tweeted about how your first music memory was hearing Billie Holiday's "All of Me." What kind of effect did that have on you?
She was the first musician I remember trying to play like. I started playing horns when I was pretty little. I learned that song, and it was the first time I thought, "Okay, I'm not reading the song from a piece of music paper. I'm hearing the way this other person interpreted the song. And I'm going to see how that interpretation can lead me first of all to try to emulate, which she was doing, but then the very idea that you make a song your own."
You play it slightly differently every time, and that's central to jazz, but I think any musician would tell you, even if they're playing Beethoven, each time you play you have to bring yourself to the moment and create that heightened sense of awareness.
Kind of a silly question, but if you could go back and play in a particular era, what would it be?
That's a really interesting question. Wow. I think I used to think about the 1950s like that. Having worked with Horace [Silver], that was sort of when he emerged as a composer and bandleader. I really like that period. You know, the late '50s is when Wayne Shorter emerged as a leader, and Booker Little and Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. It was a very progressive time in music.
But I would only say that because you're asking me that. I'm not nostalgic about that at all. I think I used to be. I think that now I listen to so many great artists working around me that I think this is a great time. One of the things that David Toomey says, "People argue that time travel is impossible, because if it were [possible], there would be all these visitors from the future around us."
So then he proposed twelve or fifteen arguments against that idea, and one of them is maybe that time travelers from the future wouldn't find 2013 particularly interesting. So they're traveling, but they're just not coming here. But anyway, we're talking about music, and I think that's a fallacy, because this is an incredibly rich time. And if you are here from the future, I urge you to pick up my record, because it's from this era (laughs).
You know, part of the thing about traveling, too, is having a record label and having all my activity housed at the label now. It's a different thing. You feel a connection with people. Like, you read my Twitter feed this morning. Part of the Internet and traveling and really being one-on-one with the people who are listening to the music -- that's a big change.
You started playing with John Zorn's Masada about twenty years ago. I was kind of curious to see what kind of effect that had on your playing and maybe your general outlook on music.
That was a great band to be in, and it's always good to be in a good, tight band like that. We still play occasionally, and it's sort of like we just start playing and it's like we never stopped. It's really so much fun playing with those guys. I learned a lot from John about bandleading and about composing. It was really challenging as a player playing with him because he has so much energy and power. And he's got a huge vocabulary of sounds that he makes. I'm always looking for balance in whatever situation I'm in and so try to balance out what he's doing is always kind of a big challenge for me. I just love it.
Speaking of having a good, tight band, do you see yourself playing with your current quintet for a while?
I started this new quintet about a year ago. I had a quintet for about ten years before that with Chris Potter and Uri Caine and James Genus. I guess it was because I was grappling with these hymns and looking for a new sound, and I didn't hear it with the old personnel. I felt like l needed to start something new, and playing with some people who were newer to town.
It's really interesting. The old quintet was Fender Rhodes, and I knew I wanted to go back to acoustic piano. But the interaction in this group is really intense, and it really goes interesting places. Everybody has some fresh concepts that they bring to the table, and I find that blending those is something that's really fun. But we recorded this last year, and we're touring now and starting to write some new things.
So Aoife is going to be with us at Dazzle, and aside from the music on Time Travel, we'll be playing some music from Be Still, and then we'll also be playing some new vocal pieces that haven't been recorded yet.
Do you have any plans to do another record with Aoife?
I would like to, but she's been involved in making her own solo record, which will be her first. I was lucky enough to play on some of that, and I suspect when it comes out that Aoife is going to...she's someone who's going to go far, let's put it that way. It's interesting, because this happens -- I don't know so much in other music -- but everyone's freelancing, and most people also have their own band and play with a lot of different people.
So you just find that very often you have a couple dates where somebody is not available and you discover new musicians by bringing in subs. We're doing a few dates with other vocalists, and I think it's really interesting, because of all the instruments, that's the most personal one. I look at it as a great, exciting adventure to bring in new singers. There are a lot of people we're talking to, and the music is coming together for another vocal album. I'll do that for sure. I'm not sure who's going to be singing on it. Maybe more than one person.