Dave Douglas’ Abstract Inspiration


Dave Douglas in the studio with members of The Westerlies.

(Photo: Russell Moore)

“What I like about the idea of [Davis’] work is its American vernacular,” Douglas said. “His work is formally and structurally thought-through. He used rhythm in a lot of ways that remind me of Thelonious Monk—the way he used repetitive rhythms. There’s a lot going on in his paintings, but as they say, he still had one foot in the gutter. No matter how abstract something is, I still have the feeling it was built from a simple germ of an idea. I like to be able to have that feeling. That describes a lot about the stuff I wrote for the band.”

Most of the music on Little Giant Still Life is inspired by Davis’ paintings, but Douglas says it’s not a simple compositional process where you look at a piece of artwork and write a tune to it. In fact, he said, some of his writing—melodies, harmonies, rhythms, forms and structure—was detached from his piano. Inspiration arrived when he was out jogging and reflecting on the art, and when he was in the studio, hear-ing The Westerlies’ improvisations and the ways that Marshall would respond to his freedom largely as the sole beat keeper.

“I’m not a painter, but I imagine the process of painting is similar to composition,” Douglas said. “As you’re writing, you don’t always know where you’re going. You go down blind alleys or you get into foggy areas where you don’t know what’s happening for a long time. But over a period of months, the idea becomes illuminated to you. You’re able to put your finger in it. I was thinking about Stuart Davis as I was writing, so I can find [allusions] to specific works.”

Case in point: the opening tune, “Champion,” which is based on a series of paintings made with Champion brand spark plugs as the center theme. “I wrote that piece, as well as the title track, to match that image,” Douglas said. “I wrote on the top of that page, ‘flashy, bright, bold and vibrant,’ and I wrote for that. I wasn’t so much thinking about the image as the idea of the image. Davis intended to have the viewer see that brightness. I started writing it as a smaller piece, but it developed into a bigger piece than I expected because of the several different sections and the drum solo sections.” The upbeat piece sparks, skips, tumbles and works with an abstract Cubist feel. The Westerlies serve as a supportive rhythm team when Douglas solos in the upper register, and Marshall’s drums play a central role.

“‘Champion’ sums up the process with how we would work together,” said Mulherkar. “Dave gave us the piece, and it was clearly written and through-composed. We’re playing four voices, and then when Dave solos, we back him up in a more traditional way. But being the cohesive collective that we are, we come up with di erent combinations as improvisers.” Originally based in Seattle, The Westerlies grew up on Douglas’ music. While the members attended his shows there, it wasn’t until a Chamber Music of America conference that they got to meet him. In 2011, the band was working on “some weird stuff,” said Mulherkar. “We decided to call Dave to ask him to listen and give us some guidance, some coaching. We had the classical world in common.”

After that they met up again on the bill at their hometown Earshot Jazz Festival as the opening act for Douglas’ quintet. “We had a short set while Dave had a full set,” Mulherkar said. “We agreed that we could join him. We didn’t know what we’d be playing, but he gave us the lead sheet to [the traditional folk song] ‘Barbara Allen’ and it was a natural for us to play.”

Soon after, Douglas began writing with a further collaboration in mind that became Little Giant Still Life. “Musically, Dave wrote for us,” said Mulherkar. “It was personal and tailored for us. It was organic. Since he knew us, he asked us to do things that we wouldn’t have asked ourselves to do. It’s riskier, more spontaneous, unexpected.” The Westerlies rehearsed the music Douglas sent them. Then when they all gathered together, they took what they had learned as a quartet to work as a sextet on a short tour. Once in the studio, all six players jumped in and clicked.

The key non-brass component for the session was Philadelphia-based Marshall. “Anwar was a discovery for me,” Douglas said. “He created a dialogue of sound on Little Giant Still Life without any other rhythm players. I left him open to think about tunings in terms of figuring out where he t in. With three trumpets and two trombones, we end up with a unique sound because of Anwar.”

“It did make me nervous,” Marshall said of the initial sessions. “So I decided to take the approach of being more groove-oriented. My assumption is that most listeners latch onto the rhythm of a piece. My job was to do a whole rhythm section by myself to make the compositions come alive.” He was particularly pleased with his contributions to “Champion,” which has multiple segments spotlighting drums.

Another “Champion”-like piece Douglas composed was the blues-steeped title track. “It expressed what the whole collaboration was about with all the different elements of rhythm,” he said. “It brings together different languages and improvisations. We comp for each other. It’s literally a 12-bar blues. The fact that The Westerlies can comp with two trumpets and two trombones like a jazz rhythm section is just amazing.”

Other pieces of note include “Bunting,” which nods to an NPR radio show theme before disintegrating into sonic chaos. “It’s what the news feels like today,” Douglas said. The abrasive, dissonant “Arcade” starts with all the players stacked up on top of each other, each playing a half-step apart. “We do four iterations of this, which ends up giving it a kaleidoscopic feel of walking through a hallway of shiny [objects] on each side as the lights move and flash,” he said.

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