Douglas Nods to Painter Stuart Davis with New Collaboration


Dave Douglas (left) with The Westerlies and drummer Anwar Marshall

(Photo: Courtesy of Greenleaf Music)

Trumpeter Dave Douglas’ new album, Little Giant Still Life (Greenleaf Music), is the work of an inquisitive, ambitious artist who draws inspiration from numerous sources.

For this program of 12 original compositions, Douglas drew inspiration from the works of visual artist Stuart Davis (1892–1964); he also drew inspiration from his collaborators in the studio—The Westerlies and drummer Anwar Marshall—and he drew inspiration from feelings he experienced during the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign. The album will be released Oct. 20.

Elaborating on the influence of the painter, Douglas said, “I like the explosive nature of Davis’ work—bright colors, big shapes, images bouncing off each other. Also, the fact that jazz inspired so much of his own work was meaningful for me. The song ‘Swing Landscape’ is a good example of Davis refracting what he is hearing in the music for visual use. It’s only natural for musicians to see the work and refract right back.”

While Davis’ mark is heavily felt throughout the album, Douglas’ relationship with his collaborators also played a big role in shaping the music. Douglas met The Westerlies (trumpeter Riley Mulherkar, trumpeter Zubin Hensler, trombonist Willem de Koch and trombonist Andy Clausen) at a Chamber Music America event a few years ago.

The five of them first played together when The Westerlies opened for Douglas’ quintet at Seattle’s Earshot Jazz Festival. The band sat in on the tune “Barbara Allen” and realized that a more serious collaboration was bound to happen.

“Dave started writing tune after tune for us and him to play together, and when we finally got together again, everything came together pretty quickly,” Mulherkar said.

With the addition of Marshall, the ensemble was complete. “The Westerlies are dream players for a composer,” Davis said. “They really get inside the music and internalize it. They are also great ensemble improvisers—that is, their tendency is to solo all together, rather than one by one. I love that about them.

“Anwar has a deep groove and real feel for the big landscape of the music; he understands peaks and valleys, and plays with superb empathy. It has made him the perfect player for this project.”

The Westerlies are known for their work with rock band Fleet Foxes, their repertoire of original compositions, and their renditions of the music of Wayne Horvitz. Anwar Marshall, meanwhile, has performed with the Fresh Cut Orchestra and Kurt Rosenwinkel.

All the members of The Westerlies grew up enthralled by Douglas’ work. Mulherkar, speaking for the band, said, “Working with Dave Douglas is a dream come true. Dave has been an influence on each of us individually and as an ensemble. I remember listening to his records growing up, transcribing his solos, and seeing him whenever he’d come through Seattle.”

Douglas thought deeply about the players involved in this group and their potential interactions. He also brought his extensive experience of writing for brass to bear on the project, as heard on his albums Sanctuary (1997), Spirit Moves (2009) and A Single Sky (2009).

The majority of the new music was based on simple lead sheets, which were then extrapolated upon as an ensemble.

“I wrote most of this music during the 2016 presidential campaign,” Douglas explained. “A lot of my thoughts and themes focused around ideas of patriotism and civic duty, and in a sense that was an additional kinship with Stuart Davis, who was an engaged citizen-artist.”

While Douglas has written extensively for horns in the past (notably in his Brass Ecstasy group, which resembles this group in instrumentation), his goals with the new album are distinct, and its sound is particularly suited to the current cultural climate and to his young collaborators.

Douglas is enjoying a prolific year. On June 16, he released The New National Anthem (Greenleaf Music), the second album from Riverside. The band, which is co-led by Douglas and saxophonist Chet Doxas, also includes bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Jim Doxas. The New National Anthem celebrates the impact of pianist Carla Bley, and it includes interpretations of three of her compositions.

Douglas, The Westerlies and Marshall will perform material from Little Giant Still Life at Berklee College of Music in Boston (Oct. 14), BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn (Oct. 20) and the Jack London Revue in Portland, Oregon (Oct. 28). To see Douglas’ tour itinerary, visit his website.

To see examples of Davis’ work in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, visit the museum’s website. DB

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