Be still

Dave Douglas
Dave Douglas

I’ve only collected three autographs in my lifetime (getting friends to sign copies of their books for me doesn’t count). The first was when I was aged 10 or so. It was Bertie Mee, the manager of Arsenal football club. I forget the circumstances, and I lost the autograph long ago. The second was the filmmaker Derek Jarman, when I went to a talk he gave to the University of Manchester’s film society in 1980. I’d just seen his The Tempest which was the film that opened my eyes to the possibilities of cinema. I’ve lost that autograph too. The third was last Thursday evening, when jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas signed a copy of his new CD for me, Be Still. As of two days now, I’ve still got it.

Dave Douglas is one of my favourite musicians. His playing is something that I can recognise automatically, whatever the musical setting, like spotting a friend’s face in a crowd. I first came across him a dozen or more years ago, playing with John Zorn. I noted at the time that a little of Zorn’s Klezmer-inspired music went a long way, but that he had a fine trumpeter with him. It was a few years later that I stumbled across Douglas once again, and rapidly became hooked. As a jazz musician he is one for pushing at the boundaries. He has a taste for the avant garde, unusual musical combinations, and collaborations with choreographers and filmmakers, though he can do (fairly) mainstream as well. His various ensembles range from big bands (not quite to my taste) to smaller groups such as Keystone, the experimental Tiny Bell Trio, the wild and free Quartet, and the exquisite combination of trumpet, violin, accordion, and bass which produced what could well be my desert island album, Charms of the Night Sky. Introspective, lyrical, inventive and fresh to listen to no matter how many times I return to it, this collection of original compositions inspired by East European folk music completely lives up to the promise of its title and the beauty of its CD cover (from the excellent Winter & Winter).

Douglas’s film collaborations have a particular interest for me. His Keystone band (trumpet, tenor sax, electric piano, turntables, electric bass, drums) is ostensibly inspired by the work of ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. To be honest, if you listened to the music alone it wouldn’t be likely to conjure up silent films to you, and if you see the music played alongside the films you’d think so all the more, but it works best as Douglas’s expression of what the films mean to him. On that level, the recordings are very fine, and if you encounter the CD Moonshine (inspired by the Keaton/Arbuckle film), recorded live at the Bray Jazz Festival in 2008, then that’s me cheering at the end of the recording (along with the rest of the audience, I hasten to add). Most recently he’s collaborated with filmmaker Bill Morrison (of Decasia fame) for a work inspired by the Frankenstein story, Spark of Being.

Douglas has never quite made to the top tier of jazz favourites, perhaps because of the eclectism and the taste for experiment, but that may change with his latest CD, Be Still. It’s a collection of adapted hymn tunes, each of them favourites of Douglas’s recently deceased mother, who requested that they be played at her funeral service. Most of them feature singer Aoife O’Donovan, whose breathy renditions of ‘God be With You’, ‘This is my Father’s World’ and ‘Barbara Allen‘ both blend and contrast compulsively with Douglas and band. It’s a cross-over sound that could well have cross-over appeal.

Douglas was in London because he has been International Artist in Residence at the Royal Academy of Music for the past two years. On the night I was there, in the incongruous setting of a hall with chandeliers and walls lined with oil paintings of eighteenth-century child prodigies, Douglas was awarded an honorary membership of the Academy (joining a distinguished list, we were told, than includes Mendelssohn, Stravinsky and Kenny Wheeler). He then played various compositions of his with assorted combinations of Academy students, who you expect to be accomplished but not necessarily to play jazz with a swing, but they swung alright. The chandeliers trembled. It was a tremendous concert – the sort of evening where you end up think that maybe all that we can really do well, as a species, is make music, and how well we are able to do it. Other planets take note.

Douglas is an innovator in things digital as well as things musical, and his website has much in the way of downloadable material (mostly for purchase) by himself and other musicians on his Greenleaf label, including music available only on the site. There’s the Greenleaf YouTube channel and you can find Greenleaf recordings on SoundCloud. If you are at all intrigued by Douglas, I certainly recommend Be Still, or else a good starting point is the double-CD Live at the Jazz Standard, or for anyone still finding their way through jazz there’s The Infinite, with its beautiful interpretations of Rufus Wainwright’s ‘Poses’ and Bjork’s ‘Unison’.

Then move on to Charms of the Night Sky, and be at peace.


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