Archive for March, 2009

Dave Douglas’ Parallel Worlds

March 12, 2009

Parallel Worlds


This album is a recent discovery of mine and I’ve been really blow away by it. I love it when a particular record or player manages to answer questions I’m posing myself as to how to move forward in a particular musical direction. Trying to develop one’s own approach to improvisation can feel extremely lonely a lot of the time. Hearing those same ideas being addressed in the playing of a great musician is very vindicating and, of course, enlightening.

This album exemplifies a lot of the things I’m trying to work towards. Highly chromatic free bop language, a kind of post-modern willingness to jump between different repertoires, unusual instrumentation and composition and arrangement that, whilst highly sophisticated, is an aid rather than an impediment to improvisation

The album starts with an arrangement of Webern’s Sehr Bewegt and this acts as a kind of mood setter for the entire album. An unoriginal but important thing to say about much of Webern’s music is that each note or gesture is a complete entity unto itself. Any sense of the ‘piece as a whole’ is gained from the cumulative effect of each part, rather than each gesture being subordinated to an overriding musical narrative. One find one’s ears being pulled in two opposing directions- on the one hand towards an atomised listening experience and on the other towards a more traditional experience of the piece of the whole. I think this compositional aesthetic rather beautifully illustrates an idea that runs through the entire album (and this blog) which is that discontinuity, fragmentation and aphorism can be as valuable as linear continuity. Webern isn’t trying to give us a winner between part and whole, but rather show us that the tension between these two elements is the inspiring thing.

Douglas’ playing throughout Parallel Worlds embodies a similar tension, and furthermore relates this notion squarely to the jazz tradition – one of the beautiful things about this album is that it is very much coming out of the music’s history (particularly jazz trumpet’s history) and yet seems to be a radical departure from it. As an example, here is the head and trumpet solo from the second track ‘Parallel Worlds’:

 02 Parallel Worlds. mp3

On first listening, this is a solo all about continuity, both within itself and with the tradition. Douglas’ lines are long and flowing, revelling in bebop shapes (all be it highly chromaticised) and are supported by an immaculately swinging rhythm section. But the head itself is highly pointillistic, drawing our ears more to the note as individually articulated gesture than as part of a continuous line. This is still in our ears when the solo begins and so we’re unconvinced that the traditional narrative flow of the solo is quite the whole story. Its linear flow is undercut in our hearing of it by the strangeness of the head. It’s as if the solo’s exuberant continuity is an almost hysterical attempt to convince us that this is a normal jazz piece. As in Sehr Bewegt, one’s primary listening experience isn’t of either narrative continuity (the solo) or of a completely atomised series of gestures (the head) but the discontinuity and tension between these two elements. We’re hearing this piece from a position of uncomfortable indecision opened up by tension between head and solo, continuity and its lack. It’s not so much that the elements of the piece are in themselves unusual, but that they are unusual in being so grindingly juxtaposed. As with much musical innovation, it isn’t the materials themselves which are new, but rather the way we are invited to hear them.

Dave Douglas is quite ingenuous in mentioning Leo Smith and Lester Bowie as well as Freddie Hubbard and Booker Little among his influences.  Douglas is far too curious a musician to be constricted by notions of genre within jazz trumpet’s history, but his openness allows his own sound and phrasing to create similarly confounding listening as his compositions. His playing seems to veer between long bop like lines and free improv smears, between concern for the phrase and for the individual note. It’s lovely to hear the attention to tiny inflection and articulation common in free music and the harmonic fluency and linear exuberance of post-bop happening within the same solo. There is also a quality he has which relates to this, that of celebrating the music he’s been influenced by and somehow showing it to you in his playing. This is a difficult thing to describe – I’m not saying he sounds unoriginal, far from it. Rather it’s that his original musical personality is very much to do with a deep and catholic knowledge of the music’ past. His real skill is in finding ways of juxtaposing widely differing influences and using the resulting strangeness to show us new things about them. (One could say a very similar thing about Joe Lovano). It’s this attitude that allows him to create such a succesful album that features compositions by Ellington, Kurt Weill, Stravinsky and Webern played by a string group. Douglas intellect and open-mindedness allows the contrasts between this widely differing repertoire, as well as those of his own unique playing, to create an album balanced beautifully between coherence and fragmentation.