TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Two virtuoso jazz musicians, Dave Douglas and Uri Caine, perform songs known for their simplicity on their new album of duets called "Present Joys." The album features several hymns from the Sacred Harp songbook, a collection of songs notated for congregations and other gatherings of people who don't read music. The songs are meant to be sung in harmony a cappella. This tradition, also known as shape note singing, dates back to the early 1800s. The new album also features several original compositions by Dave Douglas. Caine and Douglas are also known for their versatility, playing jazz that ranges from the avante-garde to music derived from folk traditions. Caine has also reinterpreted the works of several classical composers. He composed a piece for orchestra and gospel choir that was given its world premiere earlier this summer by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Let's start with the opening track of the duet album "Present Joys." This is the hymn "Soar Away."
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE DOUGLAS AND URI CAINE SONG, "SOAR AWAY")
GROSS: That's "Soar Away" from the new Dave Douglas and Uri Caine album, "Present Joys." Dave Douglas, Uri Caine, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
DAVE DOUGLAS: Thank you. It's great to be here.
URI CAINE: Thank you. Thank you for having us, yeah.
GROSS: Dave, several of the songs on this album, including the one we just heard, come from the shape note singing tradition. What is that tradition?
DOUGLAS: It's a collected thousands of songs, some of them come from folk traditions and some of them were written along the way and re-harmonized. And they're arranged for groups of untrained singers for communal singing. So the reason it's called shape note is that someone devised a system of every note in the scale having a different shape on the staff. So that somebody who didn't necessarily know how to read music could just see the shapes and know which note it would be in the scale.
GROSS: So do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do each have a different shape?
DOUGLAS: Like that, yeah.
GROSS: I see this, in ways, a follow-up album to the album that you did right before this, which is called "Be Still." That actually featured several hymns on it. And, as you say in the liner notes, this was connected to the fact that your mother asked you to perform hymns at her funeral. She died of cancer?
GROSS: And how did it come about that she asked you to play some of those songs?
DOUGLAS: Well, she fought the battle against cancer for a good number of years. And as anyone who's dealt with that knows, there comes a time when you're in your third, fourth cycle of chemotherapy, and this is very difficult for the family. And we were blessed in a way that she was willing to talk about it - what would happen? What would she want? And so I asked her, what would you want at a memorial service for you? And she said, oh, I want a party. Everyone should wear bright colors. And I said, well, what about music? She said, oh, no, no, no, don't worry about that. Do whatever you want. And then two weeks later, I went to visit her again. And she handed me a handwritten list of the hymns and the verses and everything that she wanted. And that became the basis of the album "Be Still" and also sort of a re-examination of that music for me.
GROSS: Is the song "God Be With You" one of the songs she asked for?
DOUGLAS: It is.
GROSS: Can you talk about that song and what that song meant to you when you performed it at her funeral?
DOUGLAS: You know, it took me a long time to come to terms with playing these hymns because I knew them from childhood. And I wasn't really sure how to integrate them with the band. And so my first stab at it was to take my brass band, "Brass Ecstasy," and arrange it for brass, and that's what we played at the funeral. So after that experience, I went back to it and fortuitously met the wonderful singer Aoife O'Donovan right at that time and began talking to her about the hymns and her connection to it. And she sings it much more like folk music. And I felt like bringing her into the band added this life to the songs that enabled me to make these new arrangements. So "God Be With You" 'till we meet again became for me, you know, the ultimate goodbye...
GROSS: To you mother?
DOUGLAS: ...From my mom to me and from me to my mom.
GROSS: Why don't we play that song from your previous album. So this is "God Be With You" from the Dave Douglas Quintet album, "Be Still."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD BE WITH YOU")
AOIFE O'DONOVAN: (Singing) God be with you 'till we meet again. Loving councils can uphold you. With a shepherd's cane, I will fold you. God be with you 'till we meet again.
GROSS: That's trumpeter Dave Douglas with his quintet from his previous album "Be Still." And his new album is called "Present Joys," and it's a series of duets with Dave Douglas and Uri Caine, the pianist and composer who is also with us. Some music is so well-suited to funerals or to religious services and that's in part because some of the music comes out of those things and was designed for those things. But it's like some forms of music almost seem created to put you in touch with reflection, you know, to help you reflect on life and death. In a way that can be very deep and meaningful and - or I'm wondering, like, your Jewish. And I'm wondering if you've found music either in the Jewish tradition or in other religious traditions...
GROSS: ...That do that for you?
DOUGLAS: Absolutely. Even as a young kid, you know, when I would go to the synagogue and hear the way the cantors would sing on the high holy days and it sounded like the blues to me. And as I got a little bit older I would play as part of Christian services and all types of things. And as a musician you really see you're playing for happy events, really sad events, really emotional events and the music is the vehicle that the emotion is passed through. And I remember as a young kid just realizing it's not really so much the religion that's happening, it's the music and the way people are getting emotional about the music. And I felt it in myself, so I knew that it was - had a certain effect.
GROSS: You played in churches?
DOUGLAS: I did. You know, I used to play everything from cantatas - one summer in order to practice the piano at a place where I was playing, I had to be part of the choir in the church and play the organ. Mr. Rogers went to that church. That's the one thing I remember about it. But...
DOUGLAS: ...You know - and in a way I was thinking was this OK to do this? And then it was always no - the music is what it is - the music is the important thing.
GROSS: My guests are pianist Uri Caine and trumpeter Dave Douglas. Their new album of duets is called "Present Joys." More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guests are jazz musicians and composers Dave Douglas and Uri Caine. Their new album of duets "Present Joys" features hymns from the Sacred Harp songbook, as well as originals by Douglas. Douglas plays trumpet, Caine Piano. So let's hear another track from the album of Dave Douglas-Uri Caine duets. And this is the title track from the album "Present Joys." And it's another song that I think comes out of the shape note singing tradition. Dave, would you introduce the song for us and tell us why you selected it for the album.
DOUGLAS: It does come out of that tradition. And it's - it's an interesting song because it's very upbeat and it's very much about, you know, earthly pleasures, about celebrating what we have here now, which in the Puritan tradition is not often something that you hear expressed.
GROSS: And musicly what do you like about it?
DOUGLAS: Well, it's - as you'll hear, you know, very forthright melody. As with many of these songs a really unusual phrasing structure, just the way the song works. You know, I think if you're singing with a lot of people who are singing it, it seems really obvious. But when you just look at it on its own terms as a musical text, it's just a very, very unusual way of putting together a melody. And then it had this bouncy quality that made me feel like OK, we're so close to the blues with this thing. Let's figure out how to bring this into our world as jazz musicians and turn it into a conversation - a dialogue maybe between the two worlds. And we go back and forth several times.
GROSS: OK, so this is "Present Joys," the title track from a new album by trumpeter Dave Douglas and pianist Uri Caine.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE DOUGLAS AND URI CAINE SONG, "PRESENT JOYS")
GROSS: That's the title track from the new album "Present Joys," which features Dave Douglas on trumpet, Uri Caine on piano and they are both with me. You know, in comparing the tradition of shape note singing and of, like, protestant hymns with the gospel tradition, the hymns and the shape note singing - my impression of them is that they're very kind of simple, easy to sing, unembellished styles. Like you don't, I think, expect the hymn to be sung by somebody who's going to be doing a lot of melisma and embellishment and improvisation, whereas I think in gospel music it's the other way around. There's a level of, like, virtuosity that I think is so - so much a part of gospel music. I was just wondering...
DOUGLAS: I agree, I think...
GROSS: ...What your thoughts were about that?
DOUGLAS: I think that's a - that could be a good distinction. I think though in a lot of gospel music you sort of have the choir as being - taking that role.
GROSS: The everyman role?
DOUGLAS: The everyman role. But also singing maybe simpler parts, background parts or - and in a way the real call and response that the soloist who is doing all these things is getting energy off of the community, which is represented by the choir and how they're singing. And when that works it's beautiful and it's so uplifting. And it's also so free because even though these forms are, as you're saying simple, but within them there's so much room for this type of ecstatic communion that it's - and that's what everybody wants. That's the thing that's so great about it, that that's the goal of it, it's to get off that way. And there's not many things that you can say in life, you know, publicly that you can do that, where you're seeking this type of group ecstasy, group communion as a release.
GROSS: Nicely put. Uri, you have a new solo piano album and I'd like to play something from that. I was thinking - well, first of all, the album's called "Callithump." A word I've never heard before. So I had to look it up. (Laughter).
CAINE: It's a good word though.
GROSS: It's a good word. And you want to say what it means?
CAINE: It's like a boisterous parade.
GROSS: Exactly, yeah, which is interesting for a solo album. (Laughter). So why did you want to call it that?
CAINE: I like the sound of the word.
GROSS: Uh huh.
CAINE: And it's - I mean, I've heard that word before. But...
GROSS: I had not.
CAINE: You know, someone should keep a list of these words that you want to use and - for titles or for names of albums. And so...
GROSS: You had written this down and stored it away for a while?
CAINE: I have, yeah. I have a list of that.
GROSS: So there's a piece that you do on here, an original composition called "Perving Berlin," which - I think it relates a little bit to what we've been talking about because it takes something - probably part of it is inspired by probably a simple, popular, relatively easy to sing melody and then you kind of totally weird it out and complicate it.
CAINE: Yeah, I mean it's - I guess a lot of the songs on that CD are coming out of simple sketches which then need to be amplified. And I guess the challenge on that CD was that I just recorded it with no second takes. It's just from the beginning to the end. So I sort of had a plan to sort of have these different pieces that had different moods. But the compositions were simple because I wanted in a way to try to improvise in different ways on each of the pieces. And I think in that piece it is that. It's sort of setting up a very simple thing which then sort of goes off in all these little side areas and then comes back and then it keeps on going away and coming back.
GROSS: When I record anything and I mean, like, for our show if I'm , like, recording a voice thing, I want to be able do more takes. And I'm trying to understand why you'd want to limit yourself to one take for everything, knowing that this is a document that's going to last. It's not a performance, you know, in a theater or a club.
CAINE: I often record that way too, and I need second takes and third takes. So it's not that I'm against that type of recording. But in this particular piece, what I did was I might have recorded maybe 25 pieces and then chose 11. So that was the way that I was editing myself. It's like just go through this program and see what you can do. And then later pick the ones that you like.
GROSS: So I want to thank you both. And just to sum up where we've been, I've been talking with trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas and pianist and composer Uri Caine. They have a new album of duets and it's called "Present Joys." And Uri has a new solo album that's called "Callithump." And this is Uri's composition "Perving Berlin" from "Callithump." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.