LA Weekly, 10/13/05
by Greg Burk
In a time when jazz has been marginalized to the edge of extinction, Dave Douglas has managed to build a castle overlooking the abyss. At 42, this New Yorker is the guy critics look to when they’re hungry for hope, and he gives them plenty of reasons. As a composer and trumpeter, his chops are tops. He never gets in a rut, his formats and viewpoints always swinging from intellectual acoustic to tripped-out electronic to the totally unexpected. He works with the best modern musicians: Chris Speed, John Zorn, Uri Caine, Erik Friedlander, Joshua Redman, Chris Potter, Joey Baron, plenty more.
I hoped to get an idea of what stokes the engines of an artist like that. And Douglas offered insights I never expected.
We talked in March, when he was in town playing the Jazz Bakery to support Mountain Passages, a collection of simple, deeply felt folk melodies that I think is the best thing he’s ever done. The music was commissioned to be performed outdoors “between 9,000 and 12,000 feet” at a festival in the Dolomite Alps of northern Italy. It was inspired by his father, a mountain runner, though his dad never got to hear it — he died unexpectedly a month after its premiere. Live at the Bakery, Douglas’ young ensemble (retaining only tuba player Marcus Rojas from Passages) didn’t exude the same living-room familiarity as the album’s crew, but they crackled with energy and skill. And it was a gas to watch Douglas coax that tonal palette from his trumpet, osculating his mouthpiece in ways no school can teach.
Douglas’ new release is Keystone, a CD and DVD containing his soundtrack to a couple of sweetly crazed silent films starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. If you’re expecting 1915 music, you’d better reboot, because this is loopy, turntably, electrified shit — old-time absurdities experienced through the postmodern eyes of 2005. The best tribute to Douglas: You sometimes forget the sound is there at all. And listened to sans visuals, Keystone remains fun.
The interview happened in the lobby of the stately Culver City Hotel. A soft-spoken guy who pulls off an unusual combination of nerdiness and confidence, Douglas had just returned from yoga class.
L.A. WEEKLY: How’d you find out about the yoga place?
DAVE DOUGLAS: There’s a big sign that says YOGA.
Oh. Mountain Passages has a terrific feel.
It’s a special one. It’s very personal. My rule was that each piece could be no longer than six lines of music long — I wrote it on these little cardboard pieces of music paper, because we had to carry it all up there, and I thought, y’know, everything’s gonna be blowing all over the place, I don’t want to have, like, a 50-page chart. So that influenced the way I wrote.
It seems like there’s an extra level of emotional energy in your music the last few years.
I think with Passages, I may not have realized it as much while I was writing, but as I’m playing I’m realizing how much it has to do with my father, what he put in my path, musically, from a very young age. Classical music, and jazz up to the very most modern stuff.
What else did you listen to as a kid?
R&B, soul. Jackson Five. Stevie Wonder was a huge influence on me — something about how honest the music was, how sincere. And then the ways the music was put together — the parts interlock, and the tempos change, and the timbres.
What in your record collection would people be surprised by?
I imagine that people who know my music probably wouldn’t be surprised by anything. U Shrinivas, Burt Bacharach — of course. Sammy Davis Jr. — well, duh.
I love Sammy. Sammy was the man.
How old were you when you found your tone, where you said, “That sounds like me, I think I’ll stick with that”?
I’m not there. I’ve never found anything that I want to stick with. But my father insisted that it was when I was in the elementary school band, when I was 10, and I had the solo on “Barbara Allen.” And he said, “You played, and everybody grabbed their program to see who the trumpeter was.”
The work ethic, the discipline — where does it come from?
Probably my dad. He was an iron-man type of guy. Multimarathoner, triathloner and mountain runner — something I never really understood, it was just nuts. But incredibly disciplined. And I think that on some level it’s the classic thing where everything I did was fantastic and wonderful, but at the same time not good enough. You know what I mean? “That was great. What else you got?”
Early in my career, he came to every gig. Toward the end of his life — which none of us thought would be the end of his life, he was very healthy and was just killed in a car accident, senselessly, died immediately — it must have been five, six years ago when all of a sudden I was winning all these awards and was on the covers of the magazines. He stopped coming after that. And I always felt like somehow he either didn’t feel like I needed the support anymore, or it was difficult for him to handle. It was something that we never reconciled in our relationship, something that always bugged me a little bit.
I had a friend in one of my bands, his father was the kind of guy who would come to the gig and just be dancing around — “My son’s up there!” And he would come up to the stage and kiss and hug everybody. The first time we played the Village Vanguard, I was really proud. And so my father came and heard the first set, and then waved on his way out — no “Congratulations, you’re my boy, let me meet the band . . .” I was really dark at the end of the night. I was at the bar, havin’ a beer, talkin’ to my buddy, ’cause his father had been there and stayed for all three sets, and still at the end, his wife was, like, dragging him away, and he was, like, ‘You guys are so good!’ And so I said to my friend [whispers], “The bastard, how could he come and be so cold?” And so my friend said, “Well, that’s why you’re Dave Douglas, and I’m a complete fuckup.”
The incredibly bittersweet thing about it was that when my father died, he got up and went to work one day, and he didn’t come home. So all his stuff was completely unprepared in his office. I went in, and there was this huge shrine of every article on me that’s ever appeared — all these articles laminated, and awards . . . I was just destroyed.
There’s never enough time, is there? You ever feel like you want a vacation?
I started taking vacations about five years ago, for the first time in my life. It was really interesting. The first day on the beach with nothing to do — “I don’t know how to do this!” I’m much better at it now.