One of the most commented on elements of Dave Douglas' music is its catholicism. (Or, if you don't like him, the fact that he can't make his *&$(#n mind up about what he wants to do. From his sextet and quintet to Freak In, Witness and Keystone, he in constantly changing the musical context(s) he works in.
Dave spoke to this idea directly in the first workshop of his New England Conservatory residency, entitled "The challenges in composing for the contemporary improviser" (I may have a word or ten wrong). He opened by playing a recording he said he'd received the day before, a Latin-sounding album, and asked if anyone knew the language the singer was singing it. Several people guessed wrong (including me)- it was Catalan, a Spanish dialect native to the Barcelona area. It is an album which loosely translates as "Our Standards", a set of Catalan folk songs recast in a modern jazz language. His point was that to this audiences ears, a key piece of the music's context is missing- a Catalan speaker will have a very different reaction to this music, because they know the language and its social and historical context.
This, Dave contends, is an apt analogy for the current state of jazz/new/improvised music, and the challenge for its current composers. There has been a fracturing of language; one can't assume that the player, or the audience, is working from the Tin Pan Alley/bebop base that was a given even thirty years ago. (Ornette did play Embraceable You). So the first choice a composer, before s/he even considers content, is language and context. Or as he said, "The decision of process is the first decision"
Much of the rest of the class was taken up with playing and discussing examples that supported his arguement- bits of his own "Meaning and Mystery", Hemphill's masterpiece "Dogon A.D.", a bit of Kneebody's first album, and most interestingly the soon to be released new album by Kenny Werner, "Lawn Chair Society", with Dave, Kenny, Chris Potter, Brian Blade, Scott Colley, and Lenny Pickett (yes, the SNL Lennie Pickett) on electonics. The music was really interesting- one really thorny through composed line, another open improvisation for Dave and the bleeps and blurps. There was a bit of an argument about if the second was even a composition, since there was no music per se. Dave said yes, since Kenny and Lenny created the context for Dave to walk in and blow on, and it was created with him in mind.
He talked a little about the genesis of his writing for his now retired sextet with Joey Baron, Chris Speed, etc. He said that he had the luxury of a band that could literally do anything- disco, swing, odd meter, free, punk- so NOW what do you write? He found this freedom to be a suprisingly powerful writers' block, and pushed through it by deciding to focus that band's book on tributes to one composer, first Booker Little, then Wayne Shorter and Mary Lou Williams. He said he wasn't trying to play in their style per se, i.e. the veneer of what they did, but deal with their language. (In the case of MLW, stride basslines even in a more "modern" context, quick stops and tempo changes, etc.)
He challenged the composers assembled to before they write again, list the elements that they use (and discard) in writing music. He reminded them to include community- the people you write for have a powerful effect on your music.
He said composing, and artistic life in general, also demands a certain level of awareness. This led to a (seemingy inevitable) discussion of the Iraq war, and politics. Dave emphasized that he believes that the world that we create in improvised music is a model of how a democratic society can work. (This sounds strangely familiar).
to be fleshed out... Dave Douglas will present a concert of his music tonight at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory.