Interview | Dave Douglas on the ‘subtle, unspoken and mysterious’ chemistry of his new project

Dave Douglas performs this Tuesday at Blues Alley. Courtesy mpix46/flickr

by Giovanni Russonello
Editorial board

Ever since his rise as an internationally respected bandleader in the 1990s, Dave Douglas has treated newness like a talisman; he seems interested in letting his trumpet take him anywhere, so long as it’s uncharted. That hasn’t been to the exclusion of exploring folk traditions. In 1987 he joined the legendary Horace Silver Quintet, which is about the closest that straight-ahead bop has ever come to a Caribbean dance tradition; during the ’90s, with his own Tiny Bell Trio, Douglas led a trumpet-guitar-drums combo in sharp, free-form interpretations of timeworn Balkan concepts.

With his current project, his focus is on a set of roots that lie closer to home. Before his mother died last year, she told him directly which songs she wanted to have played at her funeral – all traditional hymns. Their family wasn’t a church-going one, but it isn’t a mystifying request; these sorts of warm songs lie at the bedrock of our musical language as a country. And their melodies can carry just as much comfort as their words, sometimes more. So Douglas decided to turn his mother’s concept into an album, and assembled a powerful team of instrumentalists to complete the task. Then he heard the young folk and bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donovan perform; he felt he had no choice but to use her voice on the project.

The result, Be Still, released in September on Douglas’s label, Greenleaf Music, is rapturous. If you’re someone who often finds his playing a bit too tidy, too well-acquainted with itself – like Wynton Marsalis’s without the offhanded vocabulary of blues affects – you’re likely to perk up at the sound of Be Still. His playing bubbles out, taking shape from a vulnerable place.

He appears this Tuesday at Blues Alley with his quintet, plus O’Donovan, to perform the music from the record, as well as other hymns and original tunes. Douglas and I connected via phone last week for an interview in anticipation of the show.

CapitalBop: How did you go about researching, writing and preparing the music for this album?

Dave Douglas: These specific hymns were chosen by my mom, and it was her telling me: “This is what I want at my memorial service.” That was a couple months before she passed. That was the genesis for the project. I played them at her service, about a year ago, and then started investigating not only the hymns and where they came from, but also arranging and re-harmonizing and coming up with a way that felt my own. And also researching the words [of the songs] she chose – they seemed very universal, and not sectarian religious…. I do think that Aoife is a singer that can embody that, her background being in folk music.

CB: Right, Aoife O’Donovan comes from the world of bluegrass and folk. Obviously the music on this record goes way outside the strict realm of the jazz tradition. A lot of it has an Appalachian hue. Can you speak to the various musical heritages that you might have felt going into this music?

DD: First of all, there are all these influences going on – but for me it really is very much a jazz record. I think that my background is as a jazz musician, and my whole career has been about bringing different sorts of visions into the music and making a stab at taking the great lessons of jazz music and broadening them into other sorts of sounds and influences and realms and cultural content. So this record, I really feel like for me, was about, “How do I grapple with that Appalachian content, and Scottish-Irish-American folk songs?” Essentially that’s what these hymns are, as well. “How do I grapple with that and come out with something I can call my own?”

And I come out of jazz: My heroes are Wayne Shorter and Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I’m not trying to say that’s what they would do; I’m saying that’s where I come from. I think when you put on this record, although you’re going to hear a lot of things, you’re hearing where I come from….

Aoife O’Donovan, even though she has studied jazz, is certainly more rooted in folk and bluegrass and Appalachian sources – so part of what makes the record special is creating a context in which she can really do what she does best. And the same goes for [bassist] Linda Oh or [saxophonist] Jon Irabagon or [pianist] Matt Mitchell or [drummer] Clarence Penn. Everyone has different backgrounds.

CB: How did the various points of view that the band members brought to the table influence the way the record turned out? Did anything in particular surprise you during the rehearsal and recording process?

DD: I didn’t initially intend to make a record with a vocalist. It’s the first record I’ve ever made with a singer on it. So initially I was just working on, “How do I make an instrumental version of these hymns?” … Then I met Aoife in Colorado at a concert.… I just felt like hers was the perfect voice for this concept.

And then, you never really know until your first rehearsal how things are going to blend and hook up. Some of that is very subtle and unspoken and mysterious, but it really came together sort of magically.

One thing I would say [is] that I haven’t been to church – well, maybe a few times, but I’m not a churchgoer. Even though I am a Christian and meditate in pursuit, I have not been a part of a church community. In that way, I didn’t know these hymns, really; they weren’t first-hand knowledge.… And then when we started playing them a couple of the folks in the band were like, “Well, this one is actually played this way. In our church we play them a certain way.” And I realized, “Oh my God, these are like standards – I should know them.” It’s not that I changed the way I arranged it, but it was interesting to know that they were bringing that familiarity to our performance, and to my arrangements.

CB: Jon Irabagon takes some sparkling solos on this record, and he’ll be with you at the Blues Alley show. I’ve never heard him play quite like this before; he seems like he can play strongly and adaptably in practically any context. What strikes you about his playing, and how did you decide to bring him on board?

DD: All those records I heard of his I liked. And also the Monk [Competition] thing. And I just thought he’s a really surprising guy in a lot of different ways. That’s the way I work: I like that all my records sound different. And maybe my playing over the years is more identifiable from one project to the next, but as a composer I really try to create a different context every time. And that’s something I heard in Jon and really liked. And then I realized he’d been listening to my music over the years.

Something I learned about Jon in this project is that in any musical moment he has a million different things he could do. And he likes to talk about it.… I might say, “Think about playing this like this.” And he’ll say “Oh!” And the first few times [that happened] I wouldn’t think he necessarily had gotten it, then the next day he’d come in and play it perfectly. [He is an] incredibly versatile guy. The solo that he plays on “High on a Mountain,” I laugh out loud, because it’s like a true country sound – on the tenor saxophone…. He’s becoming a great leader in his own right…..

I also have to shout out Matt Mitchell, because I think he’s really one of the greats…. One of the reasons that the record really works is this complex language between these hymnals and the voicings that he uses.

CB: How did you like working with a vocalist on an album of your own, for the first time? I love the interplay between the two of you on “This Is My Father’s World.”

DD: I think that when there’s a vocalist, especially if there’s lyric content, the focus of the ear has to shift to the voice. So I’ve always loved being a blending kind of player – finding other voices, getting into harmony and interplay. It was a way of trying to be myself as a trumpet player, getting behind her voice and supporting it….

But also, it’s not just any singer. She’s a really special singer. The way she’s singing is very much in reaction to something that happened in the piano, or in the saxophone. When I do a response to one of her lines in the lyric, what she does in the next line is really influenced by it.… I look forward to doing more records with vocalists because I really enjoyed it. I’d say that my takeaway is, as an arranger, finding a way to put the vocalist out front and still have the depth in the band.… And in shows there’s a bunch of other repertoire that we’ve worked up – a Gillian Welch tune, other hymnals, some originals. 

The Dave Douglas Quintet with Aoife O’Donovan perform on Tuesday at Blues Alley. More information on that show is available here. Admission costs $25, and there is a $12 minimum and a $2.50 surcharge. Tickets can be bought here.

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About Giovanni Russonello

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Giovanni is a regular contributor to JazzTimes, and the host of “On the Margin,” a books show on WPFW-FM. He has written articles for The New York Times, The Atlantic online, msnbc.com, NPR Music, Politico and others. He graduated from Tufts University with a bachelor’s degree in history, with a focus on African-American history. He’s a recreational pianist with enough self-awareness to know he really shouldn’t play much outside home. You can reach Giovanni at editor@capitalbop.com.

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