Dave Douglas’ Abstract Inspiration


Dave Douglas in the studio with members of The Westerlies.

(Photo: Russell Moore)

The indefatigable Dave Douglas is sitting in his composition room surrounded by comfortable couches, a piano, a wall of filled bookcases and a large-screen computer. It’s a high-ceiling space apart from the rest of his upstate home in the Hudson Valley, an hour and change north of New York City.

The long windows on the north and south sides of the room look out at woods in the back, with the fall leaves ready to burst into yellow and red blooms, and there’s a work area of sorts in the front yard with piles of chainsawed wood, a maul and wedges. Douglas has already split and stacked what he figures are five cords of hardwood for the coming winter; it’s fuel for both an old replace and wood-burning stove.

With the quiet and calm, this composition room has been Douglas’ base for creativity since 2004. He lives in a rural area, down a winding road, once dirt, that is now paved. But he’s still far enough off the beaten path that he and his neighbors must pool their funds together to hire a snowplow to dig them out in the winter. The year he moved here also marked the last year of his seven-album contract with RCA. At the time, he was on the verge of launching his indie label, the now strikingly successful Greenleaf Records.

In 2003, Douglas and Roy Campbell Jr. co-founded the Festival of New Trumpet Music (FONT) at the now-defunct venue Tonic. Originally designed as a one-off extravaganza of adventurous trumpeters, it was so critically acclaimed by horn players and critics that it has boldly lived on as a nonprofit at venues across the city including Jazz Standard, Dizzy’s, The New School and ShapeShifter Lab.

Douglas’ latest—and arguably best— album, the jazz-chamber work Little Giant Still Life, teems with jubilance courtesy of the four-horn band The Westerlies and the unique drumming voice of Anwar Marshall. The album arrives from a confluence of inspiration, including the explosive works of abstract painter Stuart Davis (1892–1964), the turmoil of the 2016 political season and the creative spark of working with his new support team.

“Maybe it’s just my personality,” Douglas said. “But I keep thinking up new contexts and new ways of working with the tradition the way it’s been handed down to me. Little Giant Still Life is an example of that.”

Douglas had helmed his own charged group Brass Ecstasy for years (with French horn, trombone, trumpet, tuba and drummer), but working with The Westerlies—trumpeters Riley Mulherkar and Zubin Hensler and trombonists Andy Clausen and Willem de Koch— posed challenges. “The biggest difference here is The Westerlies comes as a fully formed group with its own language,” he explained. “I was able to not only use all the four individual players but also write for them as a pack, a block. So I had to think differently.

“There are a lot of tunes with blowing structures and all the typical things we learn from jazz, like from masters Monk, Wayne Shorter, Henry Threadgill, Gil Evans. But I also felt like I was able to draw on more contemporary classical language in some areas. My primary interest is writing for personalities, to be able to use that new-music type of language with a player who understands improvisation and playing forms inside the songs.”

With more than 50 albums to his credit as a leader of original music, Douglas assigned most of Little Giant Still Life’s tunes with a lead sheet that the brass members played and then improvised around or within. “It’s like a concert score,” he said. “We work from that. It’s the best way to get into action. We all can see what everyone else is playing. It’s fine for one person to jump into another part, but if it doesn’t work, we stop and talk about it. So the players can really do whatever they want unless it’s not serving the tune. It’s up to me as the composer to justify why not.”

He added, “The Westerlies can do it all, with the layers and crosscurrents.” For example, he cites the tune “Your Special Day,” a short piece with driving energy, peppery images and sustained brass notes that brings to mind pianist Philip Glass’ work on the soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi (1982). It builds to a harmonized trace of “Happy Birthday.” All of this was on the lead sheet, Douglas said, but “of course, you can’t dictate every nuance. It’s like Mozart. The way The Westerlies are playing this is their own. When I wrote it, I was hearing what I thought they could do with it. That’s the ultimate collaboration.”

Douglas’ fascination with Davis’ artwork came from a visit to an exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum in 2016, Stuart Davis: In Full Swing. Not only was he taken in by the artist’s flaming colors, robust geometric rhythms and improvisations in creating variations on a theme, but he also was inspired by the American modernist’s political engagement as a citizen-artist. Davis, who once said that he “never fit in” with his culture, worked with a jazz-influenced sensibility. He was active during the Harlem Renaissance, and there’s an online photo of him hanging out with Duke Ellington in 1943. He saw jazz as the musical equivalent of abstract visual art.

After the Whitney exhibition, Douglas read more about Davis’ life and dug deeper into his artwork, much of which he painted while listening to recordings by jazz musicians, including Earl “Fatha” Hines.

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