Interviews

Guitarist Dave Devine Goes Next-Level on a New Album

Dave Devine celebrates the release of his new album at Dazzle on Thursday, November 4.
Dave Devine celebrates the release of his new album at Dazzle on Thursday, November 4. Marc Dalio

Not long after moving to Denver from Indianapolis two decades ago, guitarist Dave Devine started playing jazz at LoDo martini clubs. After one of these gigs, fellow jazz guitarist Mitchell Long told Devine, who cites Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot and Nels Cline as key influences, that he could tell he was trying to take his guitar  playing to another level.

“He heard what I was trying to do,” Devine says. “He heard what I was capable of already doing and said, ‘You know, if you really want to do this, then Art Lande is the person to help stretch that and bring it out of you.'”

Devine, currently the coordinator of the Jazz and American Improvised Music department at Metropolitan State University of Denver, went on to study with master pianist, improviser and educator Lande, taking two lessons a week for about two years. During one of those lessons, Devine remembers Lande saying, “Every human has a unique music that only they can play. Everyone has a unique life experience; therefore, the music that they would make would be completely unique.”

Recalls Devine: “He said, ‘You have to invest time into that. Even when you're just beginning and learning fundamental things, you also have to foster that musical voice that's purely yours, because you’re the only one who can. You're the only person who has that music in them.'"

Lande also told him that knowledge wasn’t necessarily acquiring new information but more of a self-reflective exercise, and that Devine should spend time working on that, as well. “If you don't learn anything new from now until the end of your life, you'll be fine, because you'll just start to use what you already have,” Lande said.

Hearing those concepts was monumental, Devine says. He’s been honoring Lande’s Yoda-like wisdom ever since with his approach to guitar playing, particularly on his new album, Played Against the Harmony of the Real. He'll celebrate the album's release on Thursday, November 4, at Dazzle with the other players on it: bassist Paul McDaniel, one of the first musicians Devine met after moving to Denver, and Los Angeles drummer Matt Mayhall, who works with guitarist Jeff Parker and saxophonist Chris Speed’s groups and has toured and recorded with Aimee Mann.

Devine, who also plays in modern jazz trio Invisible Bird with trumpeter Shane Endsley and drummer Scott Amendola, says he wrote each of the ten songs on Played Against the Harmony of the Real in 2018, at a time when he was thinking about his family and his two children, now three and five years old.

“It’s like your whole world was around them, and you thought, ‘Well, they’re a source of inspiration,’” Devine says. "I think sometimes it can be corny to write something [about your family], but then I thought, ‘Oh, that's what I'm doing.'”

He wanted to compose something poetic for his wife and ended up writing the jazz ballad “Wife Song,” even though she doesn’t particularly like jazz — “but maybe that's what marriage is all about,” he muses. The song was also partly inspired by music that the late jazz drummer Paul Motian made with Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano.

“They played over simple, pretty tunes and then just stretched out, because the whole idea was that the tune was not in time, necessarily, and everything was played in the moment,” Devine explains.

“Son Song” was written for Devine’s son, who did not come gently into the world. The first part of the composition reflects that struggle. "And then once he got here, he was cool, everything was fine," Devine says. "Then the second part comes in with that looping chord progression and these layers, like you can see him growing from this one thing. Once that one thing is solid, you can just keep building, and that’s all that was — that chord progression at the end, and we just started grooving.”

In writing “Daughter Song,” Devine tried to capture his daughter's unpredictability. Although the chord progression — which sounds something like a much slower version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” — continues throughout the song, he notes that chords are being taken away or added along the way.

“It was just a musical representation of my daughter, who was unpredictable, to say the least,” Devine says. “I thought it would be the best way to represent her. She falls down a lot, and the progression kind of falls a lot and sort of catches itself without ever totally breaking.”

Other songs on Played Against the Harmony of the Real are about places in Colorado that are meaningful to Devine and his family, like “Sopris,” named after the mountain near Carbondale where he and his wife have gone for the past ten years to enjoy the hot springs. As he wrote the song, he was thinking about seeing Mount Sopris in the rearview mirror on the way back to Denver.

“It’s in your rearview mirror as you're driving away — this giant mountain is just sitting in your rearview and looks so tiny,” Devine says. “I was trying to find some way of expressing that feeling of going really fast with this gigantic mountain in your little mirror, and it’s sort of seeing you off as you go back home.”

The song “Canadian Yarnart” subtly nods to two Canadian influences — Daniel Lanois and Neil Young — though its title was taken from a Tenacious D sketch. The composition, along with “Short Story Long” and “Mondegreen,” call to mind the music of Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, which makes sense, as Devine guested on the group’s 2017 Blue Note album, Body and Shadow.

Because Devine, Mayhall and McDaniel are all skilled jazz musicians, they bring those sensibilities to the songs on Played Against the Harmony of the Real, most of which lean more toward rock than jazz. It's similar to the music made by Tortoise, a band inspired by minimalist composers like Steve Reich, and one that Devine has been listening to since his college days.

Most of the songs on the new album, which was recorded and mixed by Colin Bricker at Mighty Fine Productions, were built around guitar-chord shapes, says Devine.

“I've been going through this phase," he explains, "and I thought, 'This will be the time to get it all out of my system on this one record,'” he says. “It's a combination of going to school for classical guitar — my degrees are in classical guitar — and a kind of post-therapy of all that I was studying with Art, and getting this music out.”

Devine noticed that composers like Cuban Leo Brouwer and Brazilian Heitor Villa-Lobos wrote songs that used chord shapes that, if slid up or down on the neck of a guitar using open strings, would make modern, dissonant, beautiful sounds. “It's from a very guitar-like focus, which I felt like classical guitar had,” Devine says. “But with jazz guitar, you sort of pretend you don’t have open strings so that everything is kind of piano-like."

Devine looked to players who use open strings to add color to their playing, like Frisell, John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner, whom he cites as a towering influence.

“Those are the folks who are marrying those things — like what the instrument does naturally, but also trying to find their own voice within,” Devine explains. “And that's what sort of stemmed from that Art Lande conversation — like, 'These are the things that you've already spent a lot of time on. How do you then craft these songs from that?' That's where everything grew from.”

Dave Devine plays a CD-release show with Paul McDaniel and Matt Mayhall at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, November 4, at Dazzle, 1512 Curtis Street, $10-$30, dazzledenver.com.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon