Dave Douglas, trumpeter and frequent guest of the Wexner Center, returns to Columbus next Tuesday at 8pm with his invigorating collaboration with Parisian pianist Frank Woeste, Dada People, as one of a handful of US dates co-sponsored by the French-American Jazz Exchange (tickets available here). I was lucky enough to speak to Douglas by phone. For more information on the band and project, videos and a Bandcamp link to the record, continue reading below the jump.
In the way all things are interconnected, Dave Douglas talked about the genesis of this project. “The French-American Jazz Exchange originally came to me. They knew I played in Paris a lot and offered me a chance to collaborate with a French artist. I love trumpet players, so I worked with Ibrahim Maalouf and that’s how I met Frank [Woeste]. A couple of years later I saw Frank and thought, ‘He’s a great composer and bandleader in his own right,’ and we went to FAJE to propose this collaboration.”
The Dada movement was a WWI-originated attempt to fracture art from its histories and also build on all the tools outlaid by their predecessors to grapple with psychology and the contemporary world in a way no one had seen before. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that all strains of art for the last 100 years built on, interrogated, or deliberately shunned its concepts. As Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote in the New York Times last year, it was “The Big Bang of modernism.”
For Dada People, Douglas and Woeste delved deep into that scene and its personalities while zooming in on the photographer and early multimedia artist Man Ray. Douglas said, “As I started to read about Man Ray and his circle, everyone involved in Dada, I hit upon the analogy of jazz as a hybrid art form. At this point, it’s evolved into a global language that incorporates all kinds of languages and sounds. And that can be a conundrum not unlike the conundrum that the Dada artists faced.”
“I also felt like Man Ray was inventing his persona, his own identity. And a lot of times when you write for improvisers, you’re asking them to bring their true identity in music to the service of the composition. It’s the dialogue that creates something new.”
Asked about more specific art techniques blended into the music, Douglas said, “There’s a piece on the record called ‘Oedipe’ [the French spelling of Oedipus] where I thought about the readymade. One of the composers in their circle at the time was Erik Satie, so I thought ‘What if I took a Satie piano piece and messed around with it?’ I want the listener hearing ‘Oedipe’ to think ‘There’s something about Satie in here, but I can’t put my finger on it.’ And Frank has a piece called ‘The Art of Reinvention,’ plus his process often deals with taking and working with small pieces of material; in a lot of ways you can trace minimalism back to Dada.”
“Each piece came about a little bit differently In my piece ‘Transparent’ I had to ask the band to imagine a very transparent non-dance a visual work in imagining how they’d negotiate these melodies, these gestures. It’s not written as a traditional jazz chart, but it’s written in a way I ask them to understand the process.” When I pressed for specifics on the scoring of such a piece – one of the highlights of the record – he said, “This is particular to my way of working. I like to finish a piece, put it in front of the band and say nothing; just see what happens. Yes, there’s dialogue, it’s in words, but only after we start playing. I want to see what people are going to do with the material first. Only then do I make suggestions.”
That description of working and that generosity of spirit to see what the players have to offer is evident throughout Dada People. Responding to a question about the lineup, he revealed that Clarence Penn – one of the great drummers in music and a longtime collaborator of Douglas’s – was the first suggestion Woeste made. “I said, ‘Man Ray, this is really deep. What the hell are we going to do?’ Frank said, ‘Well, let’s get Clarence Penn,’ and I just had to laugh. It was like, ‘Oh right. How obvious.’ Because it was perfect. He’s a colorist and a deep time player. He’s also somebody who has profound links to the lineage and the traditions of jazz but is not afraid to push forward and try new things or be challenged.” Both bass players, Matt Brewer on the record and Yasushi Nakamura live, were Penn’s suggestions. “Since Clarence introduced us, Yasushi has been subbing in my quintet, and I recently heard him in Rudy Royston’s trio. He is a ferocious bass player. These days the upright bass is provided by the venue and, boy, sometimes I feel sorry for those basses.”
I took the opportunity to ask about a former collaborator of Dave Douglas’s who passed away recently – and made no secret of the inspiration he took from Dada – Misha Mengelberg. Douglas said, “Misha was a big inspiration, a big influence. He was about 25 years older than me, so when I met him, he already had a huge body of work behind him. The important thing about that body of work was his conception of how a band can play together. His philosophy of how improvisation could be.”
Laughing, he said, “Of course, Misha was also famously a contrarian. So whenever I’m asked to speak about him, I hear his voice saying, ‘No, no, no! That’s not true at all!’ So I don’t want to say too much, but I will say whenever I played with him he’d ask for something I’d never heard of. Or he’d play and respond in some unexpected way I’d have to try to figure out. It helped me reinvent how I thought about what I was doing.”
When asked about the younger players he’s brought up through his groups over the years – from Jon Irabagon to Linda May Han Oh to Karsh Kale – Douglas said, “I can only hope [to have had that impact]. I can say the same thing about working with Horace Silver. Or Tim Berne or Don Byron. When you work for a good bandleader, you learn a lot of things that sometimes become apparent later. I feel like the only thing I can do is do the best job I can as a human being and as a musician that I possibly can and hope that rubs off on people.”
Our talk expanded on that concept of passing knowledge onto younger music to his teaching at the New School and Juilliard. “I will say I get more back than they get – I hesitate to call it teaching, I think of it as sharing. I’m 54, and I used to say, ‘I’m not that much older than you, you’re gonna want to work with me!’ Now I have to admit I’m more than twice their age, ‘But still.‘ It’s become an important part of my practice because I have to spend some time seriously thinking about my work. And what the process is and how I can improve it. That’s what I share with these young musicians and what I get back from them is really interesting and challenging.”
Dada People is a continuously unfolding record, challenging and beguiling, drawing the listener in but not giving its secrets up too quickly. With the musicians at the Wexner Center, it promises to explode live.