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Dave Douglas: Jazz Hymns Honor A Dying Wish

Dec 16, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 10:16 am

Dave Douglas has been an important player in the jazz world for more than two decades, producing a broad body of work as both a trumpet player and a composer. His newest album, Be Still, has a bittersweet backstory: It contains his arrangements of several hymns that his dying mother asked him to perform at her funeral service.

"She was towards the end of a long struggle against ovarian cancer, and we had the time to have those conversations that I feel so lucky to have had now that she's gone," Douglas says. "As anyone who's lost a parent recently knows, that's the best feeling — that you really had this communication, and you really shared what was there to share up until the end."

To make Be Still, Douglas enlisted a new quintet and, for the first time in his career, a vocalist. Here, he discusses the making of the record with NPR's Rachel Martin; click the audio link on this page to hear more.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



Dave Douglas is a Grammy-nominated jazz trumpet player and composer. He has more than 20 albums to his name, but his newest project took him in a very different direction, a CD of hymns recorded with a vocalist. Dave Douglas joins us from our studios in New York.

Dave, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVE DOUGLAS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So this project, as I understand it, all originated with a special request that your mom made to you. Can you tell us about that request?

DOUGLAS: Well, it's - yeah, she wanted me to play these songs at her memorial service. She was towards the end of a long struggle against ovarian cancer. And we had the time to have those conversations that I feel so lucky to have had now that she's gone. You know, the fact that she was able to give me this list of hymns that she wanted played, that was a wonderful thing to share.


MARTIN: Did that take you aback when she presented you with this list...


MARTIN: ...of hymns she wanted you to play?

DOUGLAS: Of course, and I initially didn't know what I would do. I mean, I'm a jazz trumpet player and composer, and been involved in a lot of different kinds of music over the years. But I had never done anything quite like this. And, you know, of course I was going to do it. You know, there was no hesitation but it took me some time to figure out exactly how to do it. And it wasn't until I met Aoife, the vocalist on this record, that I...

MARTIN: Aoife O'Donovan.

DOUGLAS: Yeah - that I felt like I had the voice to express the way I wanted to say it.


AOIFE O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Be still my soul for God is on thy side. Bear patiently across some grief or pain...

MARTIN: Well, let's talk a little bit about the music. Your title song is called "Be Still My Soul." This is your own take on "The Finlandia Hymn" by composer Jean Sebelius. How did you approach this? I mean, how did you take this piece of music and make it into something that you would reinterpret as a jazz piece?

DOUGLAS: I think that one of the great things about jazz is you're always tasked with finding your own way to say something; finding your own path to expressing the emotion in a song, in a piece of music.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) Be still my soul, your best, your heavenly friend through thorny ways leads to a peaceful end.

MARTIN: You've made more than 20 albums but this is the first time you have ever recorded with the singer. What was that experience like?

DOUGLAS: Well, I think, you know, when you hear instrumental music versus hearing vocal music, your ear is drawn right away to the human voice and also to the lyric. And that's very different than hearing instrumental pieces. So I found a real affinity blending with her voice, you know, playing either a secondary harmony or trading off the melody.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) High on mountains winds blowing free, thinking about the ways things used to be. High on mountains standing all alone, wondering where the years of my life have flown...

MARTIN: You say this has been kind of a renewal for you in your own music. An unintended consequence of this, I imagine.

DOUGLAS: I think so and I think my mother was my biggest supporter for ever, since the very beginning. And I sat down and figured out that she probably saw over 200 of my concerts over the years.

MARTIN: Oh, my.

DOUGLAS: So that someone would support you that much and then hear all that crazy music, and still ask you to play at their service was really...


DOUGLAS: ...quite a vote of confidence. And she may have - you know what? Now I felt like I had asked her all the questions I could ask her, you know. And as anyone who's lost a parent recently knows, you know, that's the best feeling, is that you really had this communication, and you really shared what was there to share up until the end.


O'DONOVAN: (Singing) This is my mother's world. She shines in all that's fair, in rustling grass I hear her past. She speaks to be everywhere...

MARTIN: Dave Douglas, he joined us from our studios in New York. His new album is called "Be Still." Thanks so much, Dave.

DOUGLAS: Thank you.


MARTIN: And you can hear a few tracks from "Be Still" at nprmusic.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THIS IS MY MOTHER'S WORLD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.