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 Interview, Dave Douglas on Devotion and The Sacred Harp

Caine, Douglas, Cyrille

I recently spoke with trumpeter Dave Douglas about his excellent new album Devotion, a collaboration with long-time associates Uri Caine and Andrew Cyrille. Dave gave me some insights into the various dedications behind many of the tunes, and also about the centuries-old Sacred Harp school of community singing which has informed much of his music over the past few years.

I’ve been enjoying Devotion a great deal over the past few weeks. It seems a natural extension of your work with Uri on ‘Present Joys’, and Andrew’s playing is fabulous. Did you write the pieces specifically with Andrew in mind?

To some extent, the repertoire for this album grew out of the work that Uri and I had done as a duo on ‘Present Joys’. I wanted to write pieces that further explored our interest in this three-hundred-year-old American choral music called Sacred Harp. But I knew, as I was writing, that I was going to add a new wrinkle to this one. Having played with Andrew Cyrille over the years, I knew he would come to the session with a fresh view on these pieces. Indeed, without much prompting, he dug right into them.

In the course of writing and compiling these pieces, I realized how many of them were in honour or in memory of personal heroes: Carla Bley, Franco D’Andrea, Steve Prefontaine, Mary Lou Williams. This brought about a feeling of devotion in the session, and it happened to mirror both the title of the composition from 1818, and the spirit of the recording.

There are two tracks dedicated to Franco D’Andrea: D’Andrea and Francis of Anthony. When did you first play with him, and has his book on intervals informed your own compositions?

Wonderful to be asked to speak on Franco! I first heard Franco at a jam session after a festival gig in Merano, Italy, about 15 years ago. I usually do not play at jam sessions after a show, and I hadn’t brought my horn to the room. I had never heard Franco play live. It was so powerful, so pure, so straight from the source. I ran up to get my horn and came down and played with him the rest of the evening!

I think the most astounding thing about Franco is that he has the old school bebop touch and time feel. But his conception of music is so modern and innovative that it leaves the conventions of bebop in the rear view. Franco invited me to play some concerts with his bands, and that is how he taught me his ideas about intervals and his process. They continue to influence me, and I am always delighted to play with Franco.

For me, D’Andrea deals with the shape and structure side of my feelings about Franco. Francis of Anthony is more intervallically built, and thus comments on maybe something he would do. We have talked about playing this music together. Who knows? That may happen someday.

Your dedications don’t stop at musicians, as Curly is dedicated to one of the Three Stooges and Prefontaine is for the runner Steve Prefontaine. I understand you are a keen runner, and followed his footsteps in Eugene, Oregon?

I will not disabuse you of the notion that I am a runner and ran in the footsteps of Prefontaine! Something about being out there on those trails drove this shape and idea into my consciousness.

Curly: the title originally referred to the shape of the melody, more descriptive than anything. Then, as it developed, I started adding out of tempo jabs, and percussive interjections. And it started to remind me of the great slapstick comedic actor Jerome Horwitz, AKA Curly. I asked Uri and Andrew to play it as a duo, because I thought their interactions and tempo changes were so lightning fast that they got the idea across clearly.

You have recorded several records with Uri now, and each session throws up new surprises. He’s clearly having a great time on Milosang, the Carla Bley tribute, for which you sit out. How and when did you first meet?

Yes, Uri and I go way back. We met in a jam session in Greenwich Village, probably in 1985, though neither of us can place it exactly. We played together in Don Byron’s band, and then Uri invited me to play on a few of his records. Uri was the basis for my sextet, which recorded four albums, and my quintet with Chris Potter, James Genius and Clarence Penn. We have been involved in countless other productions by composers including John Zorn. We’ve also now toured quite a bit in a duo, which brings deeper interactions every season. Uri has that perennial curiosity which consistently leads him into new areas of exploration. Because of that, each time we are reunited we have new and different things to say and different things to play. I cherish the relationship.

The Sacred Harp singing tradition played a significant part in ‘Present Joys’ and seems to have continued over on ‘Devotion’. I’ve now had a listen to some recordings of sacred heart choral singing and I can hear how some of that spirit is being channelled in your recent music, but being an a cappella form of singing can you give us some insight into how you translate it into instrumental terms? Do you compose using the notational shapes and symbols of Benjamin Franklin White and Elisha J. King's 1944 book The Sacred Harp?

Sacred Harp as a source of inspiration goes back to me singing them with productions by Peter Schumann and the Bread and Puppet Theater. Revisiting the music years later, I knew that I wanted to make a transformation of the source. Not to recreate the strange harmonies, shapes and structures, but to filter them through a new vision that would encourage openness and improvisation.

There are a few great books, collections of the music compiled by singers and choir leaders. The Sacred Harp, Southern Harmony, and The Shenandoah Harmony all contain timeless masterpieces. The quality that I find most astounding in this music is the unusual phrase lengths and the strange (to our ears) resolutions of the harmony. Knowing that this music was so passionately sung, and so sincerely heard and believed, adds to the sacredness of the performances.

To bring that spirit and energy into our performance was the thing. To get at the sense of the pieces, sometimes we had to transpose them, sometimes slow them way down or speed them up. In terms of referring to the words — in jazz it is common practice to consider the lyric of a ballad tune or song, even when no one is singing them. We wanted to bring the state of reverence to the music, without the often rather gloomy puritanism of the lyrics.

Finally, your ‘A Voice from the Deep’ podcast has become a firm favourite of mine as it gives real insight into the music of so many musicians on the jazz scene. I hope this is something you intend to continue, and do you have any plans to develop it?

Many more episodes to come. Thank you so much for the great questions!

You can check out Dave's podcast here...

Dage Douglas, Uri Caine, Andrew Cyrille

Available Format: CD