Dave Douglas’ Abstract Inspiration

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Dave Douglas in the studio with members of The Westerlies.

(Photo: Russell Moore)

The lyrical “Codetta” is a Douglas original that he played as a duo with accordionist Guy Klucevsek on his 1998 album Charms Of The Night Sky; this time around, Douglas wanted the full brass effect. The seven-minute “Swing Landscape” opens with a chromatic shifting of voices in the band.

“That [song] represents the way the shapes and colors shift and mutate inside that painting,” Douglas said. “But it also spoke to me about Stuart Davis. Being an American was very important to him. He was involved with WPA activities and painting murals. There’s an extremely oblique quotation inside of this tune from the Richard Rodgers song ‘Oklahoma!’ You wouldn’t recognize it. I pointed it out to The Westerlies. I don’t think you can find it, but it’s there. I felt, what’s more Americana than [Rodgers & Hammerstein’s] Oklahoma!? It lands on a major chord after all the chromatics. Something about that feels patriotic.”

The nation’s divisive political discourse has a ected Douglas’ creativity. “I wrote most of these tunes during the most insane presidential election in American history,” Douglas said. “That was hard to ignore. It colored everything I did in the compositional room. I’d see one of the debates and there’s a presidential candidate bragging about the size of his genitals. That’s an extraordinary event in our nation’s history. That is embarrassing, disgusting and yet you can’t sweep it under the rug. Once you’ve witnessed that, how do you pretend that you haven’t?”

So how did Douglas incorporate those emotions into his music? “Anger is not my response,” he said. “As citizens and artists, we have to respond constructively, without complaining. It’s about, ‘Keep your eyes on the ball’—which is the music. If there’s any social statement in the music, it’s that an ensemble can function as a model for the way society can work. If you hear a good group improvising, it’s like a dialogue. There will be prominent voices and there will be voices less prominent.

“But everyone has to be heard, everyone has to be an equal player in the music, and everyone’s eye is on the ultimate goal, which is to make a successful piece of music. If our society could work this way, we’d be a whole lot better.”

At 54, Douglas is still a relatively young man, but he said he feels, in some respects, like an elder statesman. His Greenleaf Records label is now home to 60 albums (his own, as well as releases by Kneebody, Donny McCaslin, Ryan Keberle and others) as well as a monthly subscription series of exclusive music. In February, Greenleaf will release the new Douglas-Joe Lovano Sound Prints project. (An earlier volume was released by Blue Note in 2015.)

Fortunately for Douglas, some critical prejudices from early in his career have faded away. “When I was at RCA, a lot of critics wrote that there were basically two poles for modern trumpet: ‘There’s Dave and there’s Wynton,’” he said. “I’ve talked to Wynton about this and how neither of us was comfortable with this formulation. There are no two ways of playing modern trumpet. That war is over. Wynton has done remarkable things, and I’m hoping that my work as a composer is a platform, too. That’s part of the reason we started FONT—to show how many great, original trumpeters there are right now. It’s a golden age for the music.” DB

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