From one perspective, Dave Douglas's Witness (Bluebird) got a horrible boost when the Twin Towers fell. Inspired by Edward Said's Representations of the Intellectual, the suite-like album draws extensively on Arab music sources for its celebration of cultural activists: the Ruckus Society, Nawal El Saadawi, Eqbal Ahmad, Naguib Mahfouz, Taslima Nasrin, Pramoedya Ananta Toer and Ken Saro-Wiwa. Though it doesn't address the complicated, tangled role of music within Islamic and Arab societies, it does, with good reason, stake a claim for Douglas as jazz bard.
Like Byron, Douglas has become a jazz-based bricoleur. In fact, one of his first prominent recording gigs was with Byron's Mickey Katz lineup. He attended Berkleeand the New England Conservatory, came to New York in 1984 and studied and worked with Joe Lovano. In the late 1980s he became interested in central and eastern European folk musics, which later led to his forming the Tiny Bell Trio. He worked with pianist Myra Melford, performed with and wrote for dance troupes, and joined John Zorn's Masada, which uses eastern and central European Jewish idioms as thematic materials for free-ish improvisation.
His chosen horn was already the subject of a renaissance, thanks to Wynton Marsalis. Whatever you think about Marsalis's abilities or depth as player or composer, you'd be hard pressed to deny he is the best-known jazz musician alive, that he's pursued Armstrong's position in American cultural mythology, the iconic man with the trumpet, with single-minded intensity and success. Besides, unlike the clarinet, the trumpet has never been benched with jazz's backup squads. In fact, in his early days, Douglas sometimes seemed like a downtown white alternative to Marsalis: in his serious and self-conscious intellectualism (he wowed jazz critics with references to Walter Benjamin, Foucault and Said, much as Marsalis had by talking about Thomas Mann and Ralph Ellison), in the cerebral virtuosity and golden tones of his horn, in his controlled approach to music and the world, in the image he cultivated of straddling the classical and jazz genres.
Sometimes I tend to think of Byron as more Dionysian and Douglas as more Apollonian, sometimes I think of them as the fox and the hedgehog, sometimes I think of them in McLuhanesque terms as warm and cool. For me, as Douglas unfolded a variety of projects with different personnel and goals, his solos, especially in Zorn's "Masada," exhibited more of that unselfconscious grace that I look for in matured artists, what Castiglione called sprezzatura. I admired Douglas's work with his Tiny Bell Trio and Sextet and Charms of the Night Sky, but at a distance, where I felt the music's sensibility in some ways kept me. But his tribute to Mary Lou Williams (Soul on Soul, RCA/Victor) struck me more deeply; Douglas seemed more emotionally attached to this project, and it coincided with Linda Dahl's Morning Glory, a solid biography.
Now he's assembled a first-rate cast of players for Witness, which grew from his several-year-old "Thoughts Around Mahfouz." He says, "The music, just like the culture and the society, has retreated from experimentation quite a bit, retreated into entertainment. And yet I think--and I don't want to overgeneralize--that in the American improvised idiom there's been a lot of awareness of other art forms--dance, poetry and so on--but also of politics/social justice movements and the like. But that awareness has been muted in the ways it's been able to speak. Over a period of time it became much harder to make any kind of statement in the art itself. While we're seeing things like Ani DiFranco and Steve Earle, and even Springsteen making statements in song, for those of us who are instrumentalists and dancers and even novelists in the United States it's been harder to make any kind of impact. The resurgence of community spirit and activism in the wake of 9/11 has made that easier to do, in some ways."
He's also looking to move beyond what he sees as the end of postmodernism. "I don't relate at all to postmodern ideas. If anything, what's going on in the music now is postpostmodern, if there can be such a thing. I think artists are believing in something again. This music is passionate. There are melodies and harmonies and sequence and flow. The juxtaposition of genre language is not happening gratuitously or in a forced way. If you look across the spectrum of the music, that's a fairly universal new area, that there's not this edgy self-awareness and self-consciousness, that artists are looking for meaning."
This is somewhat disingenuous; like Byron, Douglas will talk on, given the chance, of how he's mixed and matched previously un-mixed and -matched genres and styles in unique ways. But more than Byron, who prefers to be subject to interpretation, Douglas has embedded his music as deeply in extramusical signposts as he can to fix the inherent instability of the relationship between sounds and meaning, especially when translated into another idiom. And so his CD booklet cites and briefly glosses the people and materials that inspired each piece, proffers lists of suggested readings (Arundhati Roy, Howard Zinn and so on) and websites (www.ruckus.org, www.indymedia.org), describes the epiphanic moment behind his need to speak out more directly in his music, which produced this project (reading a newspaper on the Yugoslav border "on the rising stock of American weapons makers during the NATO assault on Yugoslavia").
Like Byron, Douglas is well aware that the history of engaged music in whatever form is littered with detritus that was neither good propaganda nor good art. He says, "One of my big fears was that the message not cut into the artistic strength of the project. That was one of my reasons for not using dogmatic statements, even on the tune where I chose to use voice. I don't think anyone is gonna want to listen to it if the art doesn't come first. Said being such a big influence on how I think about the world, the quote on the liner notes steered me along: maintaining a constant state of alertness. The message of the record is, if anything, for people to think. I think that's what the arts are capable of doing--getting people to think. The music in itself confronts a lot of categories, people's assumptions about what jazz should be or could be, what world music should be. Where do I put this in my cultural file?"
Listening to the album's enveloping, often dazzling sense of textures and depth, which adheres and coheres as the well-paced CD runs, should also be enjoyable and entertaining, and it is. "Ruckus" kicks off lustily by doffing Douglas's cap to the Seattle riots against the WTO; it also rather neatly fits Byron's observation about genre expectations for "protest" music, with Arab sounds replacing Trane's Indian sounds. The title track, emotionally centered on a brilliant, achingly beautiful violin solo by Mark Feldman, juxtaposes plaints with bursts of rage over a droning backdrop. "One More News" is a short and lively dance piece about "tragedy fatigue." "Woman at Point Zero" takes its title from the El Saadawi novel and boasts a scintillating use of moods and tension-and-release tactics. "Kidnapping Kissinger," dedicated to Ahmad, lacks Ahmad's "sharp sense of humor" but is an effective genre piece, right down to the electronic music portions. As for "Mahfouz," the nearly twenty-four-minute work is the album's deserved centerpiece, and allows Douglas and several sidemen (there are eleven in total on the album) extensive improvisational freedom within well-developed arrangements, and they all shine. Tom Waits reads excerpts from Mahfouz and Gilles Deleuze, his voice mixed as far back as Mick Jagger's on the early Stones recordings, occasionally dissolving into smoker's laughter. Here, in the music, Douglas finds meaning by layering, interweaving, creating possibilities for interpretations and, in fact, loosening his control.
"How do you protest a system," Douglas writes in the liner notes, "that coopts and marginalizes almost every unique and original thought that confronts it? And how do you stay silent?" When I read that, I thought of my old Russian professor. One critic, reviewing the album, raised and dismissed this issue by noting that Douglas has a rare major-label deal. I'd just note that such Chomskyite rhetoric, the self-defeating vision of totalitarian control of culture that arises from Adorno, can't adequately account for the shape of Douglas's own career.
Consider that idea another external puzzle piece of meaning to ponder while you spin this disc, which I'd rate alongside Byron's as one of the year's best.