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Dave Douglas HIGH RISK at Performance Works, 28 June 2015

Dave Douglas’s electro-acoustic quartet HIGH RISK offered a dynamic, edgy and intense set at Performance Works (in Vancouver) yesterday evening. Fusing layered, pulse-driven techno with Douglas’s Freddie-Keppard-meets-Freddie-Hubbard, fiercely clarion trumpet lines, HIGH RISK collectively muster an infectiously celebratory and powerful improvised music that’s as danceable as it is creatively provocative. While Douglas has composed a seven-tune repertoire for this new band – which recorded together for the first time on October 10, 2014, in Brooklyn, a session that resulted in their just-released CD on Douglas’s Greenleaf label – and while each member of the ensemble (Douglas on trumpet, Jonathan Maron on electric bass, Mark Guiliana on drums and Shigeto on electronics) contributes heavily to the collaboration, for me the group concept seems to rest on the innovative, wonderfully fractured loops, samples and laptop conjurations of Shigeto, who bopped, leapt and shimmied with joyful abandon behind a tabletop covered in rheostat boxes and circuitry. The sound palette and rhythmic patter he managed to conjure never obscured its synthetic origins but managed amid the electronica to engender a vibrantly zoetic feel: amazing, richly affective sonorities. At one point, he played in duo with Douglas and the intricate immediacy of his approach became apparent, as he built vibrant whorls and cascades of joyful noise. Mark Guiliana’s drumming is brilliantly propulsive, deep in the pocket yet consistently pushing forward; his multidirectional, quickly syncopated incisions through a four-on-the-floor backbeat were nothing short of genius. Jonathan Maron seemed to remain calm and steady throughout the concert, but his bass-lines – by turns warmly lyrical and darkly palpitating – kept the band centred and present. Early in their set, I thought I heard echoes of the bluesy melody of Miles Davis’s “Jean Pierre,” and Douglas definitely quoted the four-note tag from the Miles Davis-John Scofield line “That’s What Happened”: in some ways, HIGH RISK makes a music that might have emerged from Davis’s more progressive or edgy moments in his later years. But this is a music that’s of its own present tense. Some of the most powerful and moving moments came during the last tune, “Cardinals,” an elegiac homage Douglas dedicated to the memory of Michael Brown. “This is a music that’s about love,” he told the audience. Love names the high risk this music wants to take. In the brief liner notes to the CD, Douglas writes that “improvisation transcends barriers between people and genres. Improvisation models the way the world can work.” My colleagues and I in ICASP and IICSI have been thinking, and trying to produce various forms of practice-based research, along these exact lines. The improvised music of HIGH RISK offers one instance of a hugely successful, motivated and engaged co-creativity, laying the contingent and extemporaneous groundwork for a viable human community yet to come.

Lip Shake

Lip Shake” is a brief piece composed for and during a master class with Dave Douglas at U. B. C., on 22 September 2011. Dave Douglas was in town working on a commission for the Turning Point Ensemble. The master class was a hands-on discussion of composition, during which Dave had everyone present — mostly music students and academics — write a composition for the available instruments, a trumpet and a trombone, with trap percussion, in about 9 minutes. I tried some notated music, but quickly realized I had no ear for sight-reading or sight-writing at all, so I wrote some words on the supplied manuscript paper instead. The poem, which I think of as a score for saying words through a solo trumpet, was revised from this draft later. (A reproduction of this draft can be seen in this post, below; the finished poem-score can be found by clicking on the title link above. You can see if you squint hard at the image how it was originally intended as a duo for two horns, but I don’t think the counterpoint worked, and I also like the idea of the solitary voice as horn and as sort of cracked a little, as inherently not quite itself.) Needless to say, I found I was a bit shy about offering it up to be played at the session. Despite the encouragement to experiment, there seemed to be a real expectation both from Dave Douglas and from the attendees for conventional notation and performance styles; by conventional, I mean generic, I think. We were certainly encouraged to think a little bit outside of our cognitive boxes. What I saying isn’t a complaint about the class. I was an interloper there, and really didn’t want to stand out in any way, or be thought of as intruding. I find I can learn a lot about word music, melopoeia, by paying attention to musicians and composers, particularly around texture and rhythm. And particularly musicians and musical thinkers of this very high calibre. I’m really grateful to have been able to attend the class, and to hear a little bit about how those present thought about sound, both theoretically but — really more pertinently — practically. The idea, for instance, of rhythmic duration, of a beat having extension rather than being some kind of singularity, I find fascinating.

The class was great, very useful. Dave didn’t do a lot of lecturing, but encouraged feedback — not just from him but from everyone there — on the material that had been instantaneously composed and played. He even produced his own on-the-spot composition, for which he invited feedback, as if he too were a nearly-equal particpant in the various compositional processes unfolding around him. The point was, he said, to try to really write what you’re hearing in your head. In music, as he put it, “you can’t outrun who you are.” He quoted something he’s heard from Anthony Wilson: that composing is “the process of transcribing a melody that already exists in your mind.”

For me, in some ways, treating the poem as score means both something linked to this idea of noetic transcription — getting your mind onto the paper — and something opposed to it: opening the page up to the unruly aspects of imaginary performance, leaving space amid and even within the phonemes and dipthongs for alternatives to sound. Potentiality as typographic space, as leading.

This score is called “lip shake” because Dave Douglas mentioned different kinds of trumpet sounds during the class, and that one stood out, and because making the phonemes sound down the brass tubing is going to involve particular kinds of manipulating of your lips, tongue, teeth, windpipe, embouchure, against the mouthpiece. If, that is, you decide to perform it that way.