Dave Douglas' residency is a major coup for Virginia Commonwealth University's jazz program. There's no more creative or influential musician on the improvised music scene.
During the past 15 years the trumpeter has been responsible for some of the most challenging and bracingly adventurous compositions in new music, and some of the loveliest. His work encompasses the post-post bop of his acoustic Quintet, the electronically tinged Keystone, the horn-drenched Brass Ecstasy and a swarm of eclectic small-group recordings featuring guitars, strings, accordions and samplers.
As a sideman he's performed with such players as Sheryl Crow, Julian Lennon, Anthony Braxton and John Zorn — the latter most significantly as part of the great Ornette-Coleman-meets-the-Jewish-Diaspora quartet Masada. Along the way he cofounded Greenleaf Music (greenleaf.com), a thoroughly 21st-century label, blog and subscription service that, among other innovations, has released three series of live recordings documenting each set in Douglas' multinight gigs at New York's Jazz Standard.
The unifying element of all of these projects is Douglas' clear-toned, fluent horn sound and cogent, often lyrical improvisations. While expanding his palette with new musical forms — turntable and electronic artist D.J. Olive is a key part of his Keystone group — Douglas has little interest in modifying the sound of acoustic instruments.
“I am interested in computer music players who are developing their own sound and vocabulary,” he says, phoning from his home outside New York City. “And if I hire a saxophonist like (Keystone's) Marcus Strickland, I want to hear the sound he has been working on for 30 years.”
His next big project, the result of a year-long residence at Stanford University, is the ambitious multimedia collaboration “Spark of Being,” a new retelling of “Frankenstein.” Working with Bill Morrison, a filmmaker specializing in dreamlike assemblages of archival, often distressed footage, Douglas is composing accompaniment to be performed live with improvisation, interacting with Morrison's flickering images in spontaneous and unexpected ways. “It's both narrative and abstract,” Douglas says. “And it's the most in depth I have gone with the electric component.”
The upcoming university residency will focus on a more traditional, if less likely, facet of his work: big band arrangement. “From the outside that sounds like the most normal thing someone like me would do,” Douglas says. “But to me it is the most bizarre and radical task. I am always looking for a unique way of doing things, something I can call my own. It's really tough to get outside of the way things have been done for years and years.”
The well-received 2009 CD, “A Single Sky,” was the result, combining three newly composed pieces with four Jim McNeely's sonic enlargements of earlier Douglas works performed by the Frankfurt Radio Bigband. “So now,” Douglas says, “in addition to being in residence in a place like VCU, and getting all the enjoyment from working with young musicians, I have all this music.”
During the nearly week-long residency, Douglas will rehearse the charts with the university's Jazz Orchestra I, teach master classes and play with some small groups, culminating with an April 13 concert. Some of the students, who received sheet music early, are avidly practicing their parts. “It's sort of a hybrid thing,” Douglas says. “They are nice enough to play my charts, and I get to come down and …” he pauses. “I don't like to say the word teach, but I like the word share.”
VCU Jazz Orchestra I performs with guest Dave Douglas at the VCU Singleton Center on April 13 at 8 p.m. Tickets $5, free for VCU students. For information on the concert, visit vcumusic.org. For information on the music of Dave Douglas, go to greenleafmusic.com.