Dave Douglas at the Royal Academy of Music. A Round-up

Dave Douglas at the Royal Academy of Music
Photo Credit: Hana Zushi/ Royal Academy of Music
Royal Academy of Music postgraduate guitar student Alex Roth gives his first-hand account of Dave Douglas' inaugural week as International Jazz Artist in Residence at RAM.

The events open to the public were a public masterclass on Wednesday 26th January, and a concert the following day.

Alex Roth, who participated in these, and in the full programme running up to them, writes:


The week was split into two main areas of focus: composition workshops and big band rehearsals.

Composition Workshops

We started out discussing problems often encountered when setting out to compose music - getting started, dealing with a sense of tradition, using influences creatively, developing fragments of ideas into cohesive forms etc. After that, Dave set us a series of tasks each to be completed in 10 minutes. First, we had to design a graphic score. Next we had to write a melody using a 12-tone row. Finally he asked us to compose a piece without any restrictions except that it had to fit onto 1 page of A4. All of these were done away from our instruments. We then workshopped some of these pieces, with insightful critiques from Dave. He asked us to make revisions of our pieces overnight to be tried out the next day.

Each day we would play the new versions of people's compositions and discuss whether the revisions had improved them or not. My own piece benefitted from a clearer notation and layout, stronger transitions between sections and more specific instructions for the improvised material.

Big band rehearsals

Having already had several rehearsals leading up to Dave's arrival, we had become familiar with the written music (from his album 'A Single Sky') so he was free to concentrate on the finer details: working on ensemble time-feel, shaping improv sections, honing drum grooves etc.

Dave Douglas
Photo Credit: Hana Zushi/ Royal Academy of Music

The Final Day

The last day with Dave was somewhat more relaxed, having reached the climax of the week on the gig the night before. He played us some tracks that had been important to him (Ahmad Jamal, Joe Henderson, Booker Little, Rufus Wainwright, Kirk Franklin, Duke Ellington) and explained what he liked about them all. We then played some standards and tried a few of his small-group pieces, and several issues came up that hadn't been discussed in depth so far. Chief among these was the subject of time-feel and in particular the fact that Dave felt we all had a tendency to lay behind the beat, and in some cases actually slow down. We tried a few exercises with the metronome to solidify the time and he tried to get us to play more on top of the beat.

The power of music

One of the most inspiring things for me was to witness a great composer rehearsing his own music. There seems to be a fine line between perceived arrogance and sheepishness when composers lead an ensemble through their own music, and it was refreshing to see that while Dave knew exactly what he wanted from the big band he always found a way to impart this that was clear but not inhibiting. I had the impression that the confidence to do this came from Dave's belief that the music was not 'his' per se but rather a kind of greater force on whose behalf we were all working. He talks a lot about the power of music and the gift of being a musician and I think this is what he means by it.

Compositional Momentum

It was energising to be given such short deadlines, and to rise to the challenge of producing something worth pursuing. I would never have thought I could write anything of value in 10 minutes, but Dave was keen for us to proceed on the basis that great works of art don't necessarily have to have grand beginnings, and in fact they can often start from the simplest of ideas.

During the course of the week we collectively produced something like 20 new pieces ready for performance and being part of that process right from the outset was an eye-opener in terms of understanding both the importance of self-discipline and the realities of the creative curve, not to mention the great feeling that comes with compositional momentum and productivity!


Dave Douglas
Photo Credit: Hana Zushi/ Royal Academy of Music

Kenny Wheeler

The concert coincided with the announcement that the Academy is to receive Kenny Wheeler's archive of compositions, and the residency solidified Nick Smart's strong relationship with Douglas, following his involvement in Douglas' Festival of New Trumpet Music which was dedicated to the work of Kenny Wheeler. Wheeler himself was in attendance at the big band concert, and Dave Douglas was keen to pay tribute to the Academy's close links to the great man, composing a piece specially for him.

Conclusion

Perhaps the over-riding impression I have of Dave from the whole week is just how much he means what he plays and writes. It all seems to come from somewhere really deep and at the same time it's as though he's had to work really hard for the facility to channel it. Sitting right next to him on the gig and sharing in the creative experience was really powerful for me.

This week had the feeling of something far more than a normal class.

Royal Academy of Music

Dave Douglas's Greenleaf Music

Alex Roth Music


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