In the years between the two World Wars, the Dada movement questioned, altered, teased and undermined the very idea of art. A century later, trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Frank Woeste draw inspiration from that “art of reinvention” with their collaborative album Dada People, due out October 2016 via Greenleaf Music.
Perhaps no single artist embodies Dada’s slippery juxtapositions quite like Man Ray. Both French and American, commercial and avant-garde, Jewish by birth and mysterious by design, Man Ray epitomized the conflicting personae and attitudes that have come to define so much of the modern art world of the last century. Bridging the Atlantic through support from the French American Jazz Exchange, Douglas and Woeste explore those concepts through a 21st century lens, realized by a stellar quartet rounded out by bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Clarence Penn.
In his liner notes for the album, Douglas calls Man Ray “the ultimate impostor.” Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in Philadelphia to Russian Jewish immigrants, he moved to Paris in 1920, changing his name and effectively erasing his heritage as anti-Semitism was spreading across Europe. His artwork spanned disciplines, including painting, photography and sculpture, and including “readymades” in the style of Dada founding father Marcel Duchamp – ordinary objects repurposed as works of art.
Bringing together a French pianist and an American trumpeter, Dada People immediately connects Woeste and Douglas to Man Ray’s elusive identities. But they’re also suggested in the ways that the two composers’ music, like Man Ray’s art, fluidly traverses the accessible and the experimental; in the spectrum of possibilities offered by translating visual art through sound.
“Writing music based on visual art is always very subjective and intuitive,” Woeste says. Douglas adds, “The Dada Movement is such an elusive term (like so-called ‘post bop’ or ‘free jazz’) that half the fun of working with various ideas was being able to explore for ourselves and explode some of the manifestos and stances. These were great artists, and as such were mutable and fluid. In that way there is great relevance within improvised music.”
Douglas hails the “spirit of mischievousness, of play, of mystery, and also of the ‘play of identity’ within the work of Ray and his circle,” and immediately engages in that spirit with his own version of a “readymade.” Album opener “Oedipe” makes explicit reference to the work of composer Erik Satie, a contemporary of Man Ray and the Dadaists. It’s followed by the gaslit dance of Woeste’s “Mains Libres,” which takes its title from a book of poetry penned by Paul Éluard to accompany Man Ray’s drawings.
It’s not hard to imagine Man Ray or Marcel Duchamp finding inspiration in the spork, an object that exists as two things simultaneously; Douglas certainly does in his surging tune of that name, which features Woeste on Rhodes. The sultry mystery of the pianist’s “Montparnasse” evokes Man Ray’s muse, Alice Prin, also known as the “Queen of Montparnasse.” Douglas’ “Transparent,” meanwhile, interweaves elegance and abstraction in a way that certainly wouldn’t be alien to the Dadaists.
Woeste offers his own manifesto with the bold “Art of Reinvention,” a notion that he finds particularly compelling as it “reflects on the idea that we can see things in a different light depending on our perspective and also our motivation to see art in things that are not necessarily meant to be art in the first place. As an improviser and as a jazz musician we need to ‘reinvent’ ourselves constantly, reinterpreting and reinventing songs that have been played many times.”
The two composers originally met while Douglas was working on a collaborative project with French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, with whom Woeste regularly works. They kept in touch until the time was right for a collaborative effort. Woeste suggested Man Ray as a source of inspiration, to which Douglas immediately agreed. “Having read about and looked at the Dadaists for years,” the trumpeter says, “I was enthusiastic about making these connections in our music.”
“What I found fascinating in the Dadaist Movement was that it changed our view of what art is or what art can be,” Woeste explains. “The fact remains that all of these artists had a great freedom in thought and speech and that we as post-surrealists have learned to see the potential of art in daily objects when we set them free from their original function.”
Dada People has been made possible through the French-American Jazz Exchange, a joint program of FACE Foundation and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation, with generous funding from the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Florence Gould Foundation, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Institut Français, Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication and Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs de Musique (“SACEM”).