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Riverside looks to the past to move into the future

Dave Douglas, Chet Doxas, and Steve Swallow at Riverside's Ottawa performance at Chamberfest. ©Brett Delmage, 2012Chet Doxas' newest project, Riverside, both looks back to the past and into the future.

It's a tribute by the Montreal saxophonist to one of his long-time jazz heroes, saxophonist and clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, whose music from the 1950s and 60s was a strong influence on Doxas. But at the same time it looks forward by including new music composed by members of the group in Giuffre's tradition and honour.

Giuffre started out in the big bands of the 40s and 50s. He was first celebrated for his composition “Four Brothers” for the Woody Herman Band. But, by the 50s, he'd moved on to what he called “folk jazz”, with country and roots influences. And, in 1961, he collaborated with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow to create two trio albums (Fusion and Thesis) which helped define modern jazz and its alternatives to bop. Giuffre reunited almost 30 years later with Bley and Swallow for two more well-received albums (Diary of a Trio: Saturday and Sunday)

And adding another historical link, Steve Swallow is also the bassist in Riverside. Joining him is American trumpeter Dave Douglas, and Montreal drummer Jim Doxas, who has collaborated with Chet on many different projects. Chet Doxas, Douglas, and Swallow are all contributing compositions to the group.

The group is currently doing a short tour of New York and Eastern Canadian cities with its new music, (including an Ottawa stop at Chamberfest), before recording a CD.

OttawaJazzScene.ca recently interviewed Chet Doxas about how he was inspired to start Riverside, and what will be happening with it next.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you first hear Jimmy Giuffre's music?

Chet Doxas: Someone played a record for me when I was around 16 years old. It was one of these experiences that I had, similar to the first time I heard Charlie Parker, where there was something – for lack of a better word – that really resonated with me. It seemed to strike a very deep chord where I knew that music was going to be with me forever.

I don't know if you've had that similar experience, but the first time you hear something you know that you're going to love, you're never going to get tired of that. So there's a freshness that I think has always kept me coming back.

But I've thought a lot about it over the years about what makes me keep coming back to his music, and there's something about his spirit that is so open and vulnerable.

When you listen to Miles Davis, one of the great things about Miles is the way he let the listener in, I find. You never really hear the word “virtuoso” and Miles in the same sentence, and I think that's a really good thing, because sometimes, as I'm sure you'll agree, sometimes technique can get in the way of the heart. Not that technique is not very important – it's very, very important – but sometimes, for my taste, people lose their way a little bit. And when Miles plays “'Round Midnight”, it breaks your heart.

And Jimmy Giuffre, to me, had that ability. There's a vulnerability about him out there playing, I think, that resonated to me just on the spiritual side of things. And them on the technical side of things, how prolific he was as a composer. On a day to day basis Jimmy Giuffre inspired me as well – just how prolific and how forward-thinking he was and how respected among his peers he was.

Unfortunately I never go to meet him because he was so sick for the last 20 years of his life, which was sad. He was crippled by Parkinson's and he had severe Alzheimer's. It really was a sad way to end his life. So his wife, Juanita, took care of him for at least the last 20 years of his life and he was unable to carry on his composing and his other activities.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Do you remember the name of the first Jimmy Giuffre album that you heard?

Doxas: It was actually a double album, that was re-released on ECM, and it was called Fusion and Thesis. And what's so exciting was that Steve Swallow was actually the bass player on that record. So he'll be playing with us at the Chamber Festival. And he's the one on those recordings from the late 50s, so that's going to be an extra little bonus.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Giuffre played many instruments, but he was best-known as a clarinetist. Are you going to be interpreting his material on clarinet, or saxophone?

Doxas: It's funny: he's known as a clarinet player as well, but a lot of his earlier recordings were on saxophone, and saxophone is something that he kept playing throughout his career. I think one of the reasons he became so known on clarinet is because he had such a unique sound. And that's one of the reasons I don't think I'm going to – I'm not sure yet – if I do play clarinet, it's not going to be not as much as saxophone, but I'm almost a little apprehensive to even play his music on clarinet because he played it so uniquely. It would be like if I were to have some saxophone player part in an Ornette Coleman-themed record: I would be too nervous. I wouldn't know where to start. His sound and his clarinet sound is, I think, so personal that I feel like I'm going to be able to better represent his inspiration on tenor saxophone, for me.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That's your main instrument, right?

Doxas: Yes, I started on the clarinet when I was a kid and I still love to play it, and I love the instrument, but I feel that my individuality lies more on the saxophone, and I think that's going to be the instrument that carries the music the best.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So how did Steve Swallow get involved in this project?

Doxas: Well, we've been in touch over the years about doing some kind of project together. And Dave Douglas similarly: we've always been in touch about doing various projects over the years. And I just thought about it: this could be a really fun one to get everyone involved. And everyone jumped right on board. Basically it was organized within a day of everyone wanting to do this project.

But that was about a year and a half ago. Everyone is really busy so … But as far as enthusiasm and everybody contributing to the project, it seemed to resonate with everybody. So we're all composing for the group.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Is the concert going to be mainly originals, or is it going to be partly Giuffre's compositions? How's it going to work?

Doxas: Yes, it's going to be mainly originals actually. So we've all composed music, thinking of him, and thinking of his inspiration on us and what he means to us – and then we went from there.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: In the second set of recordings which Giuffre did with Bley and Swallow, the recordings included smaller sets of duos within the trio. Are you going to be doing that in any of the compositions, or is primarily going to be the full quartet playing?

Doxas: I don't know. That's a good question. I know the compositions – and especially the improvised sections – lend themselves well to different combinations of instruments, and I know that my brother is one that loves that idea of not playing. Often, he'll drop out just to see what it's like to have the duo sound. So I don't know yet. I know that some of Dave's stuff features different instrumentations throughout the composition, but it's hard doing solo pieces and duo pieces. That's so far not on the program.

But we're going to rehearse next week in New York before we start off our tour and we'll see then. But I've been thinking about that as well: it's funny you asked that. It would be fun to have some duo or solo pieces.

Once we record the record – that's what we're doing at the end of this tour – we're recording in Toronto.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So I've got you in Ottawa on the 8th, Montreal on the 9th, and Westport on the 10th. Any other gigs in this tour?

Doxas: Yes, the day before Ottawa we play in Woodstock, New York. And then after Westport, we play at the Rex [in Toronto] on the 11th.

Five concerts, and then we record for two days.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: That's pretty intense, isn't it?

Doxas: Yes. It's going to be great, though. This is the second time in a year that I've been able to tour before recording. I actually got to do this in the winter where we toured then recorded [a three-song EP for another group]: it was so fun!

We have two days following this tour that we're going to use as studio time to record a full album with the Giuffre project, which is called “Riverside”, by the way.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Where did that name come from?

Doxas: Well, Dave seems to have the great knack for coming up with creative names for groups. So we came up with that together on-line, shooting band names back and forth. We had a couple different options, and then “Riverside” seemed to conjure up a nice image. I feel like nature seems to be a common theme in Jimmy Giuffre's music as well. We wanted something which had a nice image to it. Orchards and stuff like that came to mind a lot. There's just something that's very rooted and rootsy and ultimately it's very American about the sound, too.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: And it also relates to the jazz record label, Riverside?

Doxas: Oh yes … we hadn't thought about that, though.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Looking at Giuffre's discography, he doesn't seem to have played a lot with trumpets. How are you going to incorporate the trumpet sound in? How are you going to re-envision what Giuffre was doing?

Doxas: The music that we're drawing upon for the role of the trumpet is something that Jimmy Giuffre got started [with] on the West Coast. There was a really well-known – at that time on the West Coast – composer and trumpet player named Shorty Rogers. And Shorty Rogers reminds me of – well, if you listen to [Rogers' music], you'll know that it has a very definitive West Coast sound, but it's very highly arranged. And it's beautiful music, and Jimmy Giuffre played alto and tenor and bari [sax] in those groups. And then they solo a lot together plus they play a lot of the themes together.

But as far as fitting the trumpet and saxophone together, that's been a common instrumentation that Dave Douglas has written for over the years. And if we had the chance to play together, I knew that was the setting I wanted to play in: two horns, bass and drums.

It just allows for a lot of counterpoint. We're going to be soloing a lot together, because we've already done a concert in Banff [at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music] together, Dave and I. I was out there teaching for the second of two weeks, where we got the material together and we performed it with the faculty as well as a couple of the students [who] joined us.

So a lot of the tunes that we solo on, we solo together, which is really fun to do.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: The New York Times obituary for Giuffre talked about how he was blown away when he learned about counterpoint and how he used it in some of his compositions. Is that another link back?

Doxas: Yes, for sure. I mean, that's something that we're all technically interested in. Especially someone like Steve Swallow: his use of counterpoint in his soling. Basically I think he plays counterpoint the whole time that he's playing. It's amazing; it almost reminds me of a counterpoint line you'd hear in a fugal setting.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Beyond recording the album, do you have any further plans?

Doxas: Upon the album's release, then we'll concentrate really on touring. I look at this as a pre-recording tour, which is going to be great, and then once we get the album out, we'll tour extensively. And Dave and Steve have such a great rapport with so many festivals in Europe and Jimmy and I throughout Canada and then Steve and Dave in the States as well, we have a lot of options of how to perform the music and where to perform the music. So definitely it doesn't stop here. Upon its release, we're going to continue to perform the music, for sure.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: One of the things Giuffre was apparently known for was a very even, smooth sound quality, whether he was playing sax or clarinet. Is that something you're going to be emulating in the concert?

Doxas: Well, I think some of the tunes lend themselves to that anyways. You'll hear in the compositions a lot of character to a lot of the tunes. A lot of the tunes will be on the rootsy, blues, almost bluegrass, like deep Delta blues side of things. There's an inherent vibe that's already set up. Some of them are almost steamy … in the New Orleans, Texas blues kind of aesthetic to it. So that already lends itself to a lot of character, and there are tunes that definitely lean on that side of things.

There's some cheeky numbers. Giuffre liked humour, I find, in his music. So there's a cheekiness about some of his melodies. There's a song called “The Train and the River” (you can find that on-line; there's a really good video actually from the 50s of him playing it live). It sounds really like an Appalachian bluegrass, like a banjo tune almost.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So you're going back further than his well-known records from the 1960s, but also including what Giuffre did in the the 1950s?

Doxas: I would say most of it tends to lean more towards that almost Appalachian sound.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: So this then relates back to some of the work that you've done personally [with Muse Hill]?

Doxas: Yes. And coincidentally, the music that Dave has written has a lot of that sound in it too. That Appalachian, Blue Mountain, Kentucky sound, which is music that I've grown up with too, from my Mom's side of the family.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: And, lastly, how does this link into chamber music?

Doxas: I've been involved in chamber music festivals before, specifically the one in Montreal that Denis Brott runs. And I was always surprised when he would call me to either play or suggest acts for him to book at the festival, because he thought just the sheer instrumentation of a jazz group is a chamber group. And that surprised me, and I thought, “OK, well that's a cool way to look at it”.

As far as our project specifically and aesthetically, I think the way it's arranged and the way the arrangements are going to be treated, and the way we all perform together, is going to be … I hope the chamber music fans are going to be able to realize the link and celebrate it, because I think there's going to be a lot of aesthetic [links]. And all of us in the group have all written chamber music: I've written a lot for string quartet: Dave's written for pretty much every combination of instruments under the sun, from chamber music to full orchestra, and Steve's also written a lot of chamber music, too.

I wrote a song cycle based on a book of short stories by Jean-Paul Sartre called Le Mur. I wrote a different string quartet for each short story in the book. That was for a string quartet that we put together specifically for the project. That was for CBC and then we performed it at the OFF Festival in Montreal. That was really fun.

OttawaJazzScene.ca: Any other thoughts about this project?

Doxas: I'm specifically excited to bring these musicians to Canada, because they often don't collaborate with musicians from Canada. So the fact that we're getting to bring them here for a project that's featuring original music, I think is pretty exciting.

The only time you really get to see these guys, say Dave or Steve, is when they bring their own groups for the festival – and they'd be in and out. But the fact that we're going to be coming – just after the season, but off the jazz festival season, but performing original music that we're all contributing, I think it's exciting for existing Canadian jazz

I hope it maybe sparks some inspiration amongst other Canadian musicians to reach across the border and say “Hey, if you really like the way someone plays, you just don't have to make them a hired gun, but fill an original project around it.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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