Grief and loss are complex conditions that tend to prompt elemental responses—in art as in life. The classical music tradition offers requiems rendered in fiery and compassionate tones. The New Orleans jazz funeral, by comparison, is more richly ambiguous: sorrowful at the start, outlandishly celebratory by the end.
Mask, a new album by the composer and valve trombonist David Dominique, taps into both of those traditions and more besides. Dominique, a conservatory trained composer who cut his teeth in Long Island ska groups and Los Angeles free-improvisation hordes, wrote Mask during an especially tumultuous span of years, in which he lost numerous family members and mentors, relocated from one side of the country to the other and back again, and struggled to determine what kind of artistic practice he wanted to pursue.
The answer to that last question, to judge by the hard-swinging complexities found in Mask, might be “all of the above.” Dominique and his bandmates tackle tunes that uncannily evoke the leader’s state of mind as he processed loss and transience. Giddy energy and stasis are forced to coexist; themes appear and then vanish when lines that seem clear suddenly take sharp turns.
If that all sounds clinical, think again. Dominique’s charts echo Mingus, Stravinsky, Reich, and interests beyond, effusively and at times with manic zeal. His tight ensemble – young Angeleno hotshots closely associated with the innovative indie label Orenda Records, which issued Mask – dig in with enviable finesse and convincing swagger.
Speaking by phone from his home in Richmond, Virginia, an hour’s distance from work at William and Mary College, Dominique described the path that led him repeatedly from one coast to the other, the factors that contributed to his compositional approach, and the arduous period of life that prompted him to create Mask—an album he’ll be celebrating with a record-release show at Nublu Classic on Nov. 15.
NATIONAL SAWDUST LOG: Before we talk about the new album, tell us a bit about where you came from and how you got started in music.
DAVID DOMINIQUE: Sure. I was born in Queens, and then when I was in elementary school my family moved to Long Island. But then I went back to Queens in the middle of elementary school. My mom taught at P.S. 34, which is in that Haitian area, Little Port-au-Prince, on Springfield Boulevard. And my dad was a teacher, and a principal, eventually, in Brooklyn for many years; he taught in Bed-Stuy, and then he was a principal in Crown Heights.
I went to NYU, and took a smorgasbord of music classes. I didn’t do a jazz thing at NYU – I mean, I took piano lessons with Don Friedman…
Don Friedman! No big deal. [Laughs]
Yeah. [Laughs] At the time, I didn’t know that much about him. A peer was just like, “This guy’s a badass, you should take lessons with him.” I mean… I really had no business taking lessons with Don Friedman.[Editor’s note: Friedman (1935-2016) was a celebrated California-born pianist who worked with Dexter Gordon, Chet Baker, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy, among others.] I was more interested in composing, and making weird stuff that I would show him… like, I would show him reggae dub stuff that I was working on in the studio. I had a ska band at the time. I was playing some jazz trombone, too.
I majored in cultural anthropology and minored in music, but I had more credits in music than anthropology – I took a lot of theory and music tech stuff and analog synthesis. After NYU, I lived in Brooklyn, on Dean Street between Nostrand and Bedford.
Were you doing any gigging during those days?
I wasn’t. I was just recording in my bedroom. I didn’t really gig in New York; I gigged on Long Island in these bands that you wouldn’t know the names. There was this band called the New York Citizens – they were one of the big lights of third-wave ska. This dude from it [Robert Tierney] started a band called Atwood 9 that I was in for a year. I played at Coney Island High a few times and Wetlands, with different bands.
But you never really were part of the jazz players’ scene.
No. I was really doing my own thing. I never really got integrated into any kind of scene in New York. Then I moved to L.A. in 2000, and I was doing more indie rock… I did a bunch of playing and touring with some people who made names for themselves. I went on tour with the Walkmen as a trombonist. And I played some shows with Jens Lekman—I played Coachella with him, and we did some big festivals. I played with Man Man a few times. But that’s all kind of footnotes; I don’t think that’s central to my narrative.
What spurred you to move to Los Angeles?
I guess I just needed an escape. I’d lived in New York my whole life, and I had relationships that weren’t that healthy. I was just looking to escape myself.
The classic reboot?
Yeah. I also was interested in the romantic idea of driving to the west, and having a car. My dad had this old car that he gave me because he wanted a new one. So I just drove to Washington state. I scored a film while I was in Seattle, a film that never did much, Anatomy of a Fight. My plan had always been to stay in Seattle for the summer and then move to L.A., which I did. I played a lot in L.A.—I was gigging a lot from 2003 until I left in 2010.
Through that, I ended up in this band called Bodies of Water that did pretty well; they were on Secretly Canadian, and they made a splash on Pitchfork. We were an indie-rock band with two trombones, and the other trombonist in the band [Joseph Tepperman] was in this other thing called Killsonic that was like this free-jazz… at the time it was a sextet, but very soon after I became friends with them, they exploded out into a roving free-jazz horde, a street band of 20 to 30 musicians, depending on who showed up.
We had tunes, and I wrote charts for it, but a lot of it was chaotic free-jazz blowing – it’d be like eight drummers and 13 horns and 10 accordions. It was really wild: we’d play on the streets and do subway tours. But then people started becoming aware of it, so we had write-ups in L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times, and we did an opera at REDCAT, which is part of Disney Hall.
An opera. As one does.
It was always, let’s say, overly ambitious.
But mostly in a positive way, it sounds like?
Sure, but I think some of that ambition led to inner tension. It had nothing to do with me leaving L.A., but I don’t think that band was functional for long after I left. That was just because of the dynamics of the group. But that’s how I became part of… Dan Rosenboom, who owns Orenda, played in Killsonic for a while. Gavin Templeton, too, who’s on Orenda, and he’s on my first [album], Ritual. Basically, everyone on Mask has done stuff on Orenda, like Brian Walsh. And Alex Noice, the guitarist on Mask, has a new record coming out on Orenda next year. He’s amazing.
Coming upon Orenda during a relatively random internet trawl early last year was really eye- and ear-opening for me. One day I just got to thinking about Vinny Golia and the whole scene that formed around his amazing record label, Nine Winds. I wondered what Vinny might be up to now, and stumbled upon a recent Nine Winds release, New Blood, that featured all these players I didn’t know—including everyone you mentioned just now. From there, it was one more quick step to discover Orenda and this entire scene of L.A. players who were making incredible music. So I wonder, since you’ve had the vantage point of coming up in New York and then moving out west, what’s the foremost misconception we have about creative music in Los Angeles?
Whether you’re talking about cultural production as a category of human activity, or specifically about music and jazz, there’s been this long-standing perception of L.A. that it is sort of blindly and exclusively commercially oriented. You could put it even more negatively, to the point that there’s something superficial about cultural production in L.A. But even as I say that, I feel like I’m speaking from 10 years ago. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time in L.A. and so little time in New York, bur I think those misconceptions are to some degree in the past. I know that in the art world and in the higher-ed world, L.A. is taken quite seriously as another hub, almost like a rival or competitor to New York, and even world centers of art production, like Berlin and Paris.
I think music as a general field of discipline often lags—or at least perception about what’s going on in music lags. I think people still aren’t hip; just in the process of trying to make people aware about Mask, I was kind of surprised that people aren’t very aware of what’s going on in the L.A. underground. Of course you have the more visible people, like Kamasi Washington. But there are multiple scenes that have been there for decades, and a lot of that has been centered around cultural output from Cal Arts and related institutions, which are not in L.A.
People like Wadada Leo Smith and Vinny Golia, who are extremely forward-looking avant-garde creative artists—people in New York are aware of them, and I’ve seen places like Down Beat giving a lot of nods toward those elder statesmen recently. But there’s also a large population of their protégés, and people who are ancillary to their protégés, that I’m not sure New York is aware of or interested in.
Mask came together during a tumultuous period in your life. Could you talk a bit about what it was that you were going through, and how the music on the album might reflect that?
In very close succession, I lost a number of people who were close to me, over a short number of years. It started with my grandmother, and then my uncle, her son. Then my dad, on the other side of my family, passed away a year later. And even after that it kept going, with people who on paper were not family. My therapist died of cancer in her early sixties, and I was very close to her. Then the chair of the department where I did my PhD at Brandeis, who was really supportive of me, died in her early sixties.
While this was happening, I was pretty immersed in the world of what’s known as contemporary music, or new music. I say “what’s known as” not because I don’t think that, but calling it those things is problematic. It’s this generic identifier that tells us something that’s actually very specific, and very cultural. We’re dealing with a specific class and demographic of people, but we’re just not naming them. I was pretty immersed in that world in my graduate studies, and got frustrated with a variety of aspects. So I started looking for other outlets or ways to express myself, given my training.
What led you to Brandeis, specifically?
Around 2005, when I was living in L.A. and playing in bands, it was obvious to me that I was not on any type of path that would lead to a sustainable living. I thought that there were two ways I could translate my interest in composing and my abiding passion for music and exploring new territory into money: maybe I could be a commercial composer and do stuff for films, video games, and advertising, or if not, I thought I could get a PhD and become a professor.
Both of those things were pretty misguided, and I think in some ways I’ve been lucky, so I’ve worked really hard and been very intentional about my academic career. When my students come to me and they have designs on graduate school and professorships, I have to give them a long, sober talk about how realistic or unrealistic that is in 2018. But in some ways I’m lucky that no one dissuaded me when that was my idea.
So in 2005 I started taking classes at UCLA Extension in film scoring, and surely by happenstance they’d hired this kind of severe atonal composer to teach the theory classes—his name was Bruce Reich. He was there nominally to teach nuts-and-bolts music theory, because they had these film-scoring classes and the professors were complaining that people didn’t even know what a major seventh chord was. So they hired this guy, but he’s actually a Yale-trained former Penderecki student who was really only interested in Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, and Pierre Boulez, and has zero interest in film scoring. Anyone who came into his classes, he would kind of try to tell you, in a not-subtle way, that this film scoring thing is a waste of your time, “let me show you the true path.” And he would try to get you composing like Boulez. [Laughs]
When I started, he assigned me: write a clarinet solo, here’s the 12-tone method, try to use that. And I did it, and he was really shocked. I took to it quickly and easily because I immediately started referencing Eric Dolphy. The intervallic tendencies of Eric Dolphy weren’t that different from those of the atonal composers that Bruce loved. I just naturally was able to write without meter and without pitch-centricity because I had been listening to stuff like that for a while by that point. He was like, if you can do this, you can get somebody to pay for your PhD and you can become a professor. And I was like, sign me up! [Laughs] And that was cool, but it led me down a path that I’m still trying to correct.
So did you end up at Brandeis for a specific instructor? Was it just the right offer?
It’s both. I applied to a few schools before Bruce died, and he never got to see me go to Brandeis—he died years before I went there. But I had an email from him where he told me that the best education in both tonal and non-tonal music that’s offered in the United States is at Brandeis. There’s truth to that, but that wasn’t a mainstream opinion. He said it was because there was a guy there named Martin Boykin, this hallowed pedagogue of tonal music, but also a composer of non-tonal music. But my advisors there were David Rakowski and Eric Chasalow.
I went to see Marty Boykin after Bruce died, around 2008. I showed him some of the exercises I’d done with Bruce, and he was super excited about them. But by the time I got there, he’d retired. So I studied with David Rakowski and Eric Chasalow primarily, and they’re of a generation that they love jazz, free jazz and ’60s jazz, the same stuff that I do. And that comes out in their music in a really different way than it comes out in my music. Usually they’ll recontextualize it in some sort of orchestral or chamber-music or electro-acoustic setting. But by the time it’s 2011, 2012, and I’m at Brandeis, I’m like, I don’t need to recontextualize it; I’ll just continue from where the music that I’m into leaves off. I don’t need to have a conductor in a tuxedo conducting people bar by bar through this thing; I’ll just run my own ensemble and do it my way.
So it was a combination of that and – toward the end of my time in L.A., when I was doing a master’s at Cal State Northridge – Killsonic qa getting so amorphous in personnel and in musical language that it was getting harder for me to relate to some of the music. I had said to some of the principals in that group, why don’t we get the small group that existed before together again, and we could do some more controlled stuff? But no one really did that, so I was like, screw it: I’m going to write a bunch of tunes, and whoever’s willing to get together with me and play will do them.
That’s what ultimately became Ritual: me wanting to do stuff that’s more under control, but still has some of the aesthetics that we were doing—I just don’t want it to be all crazy blowing in the street, all the time. So that’s how I started doing this… that, combined with needing something other than the chamber music I was writing.
So then coming back around to Mask, how does this specific music connect with the upheaval you’d experienced?
At the same time I was having all of these deaths, and feeling like I was losing part of myself and my family and my history, I was also going through this upheaval of trying to understand what kind of artist I was and wanted to be—whether I’m going to write pieces and give them to ensembles, or I’m going to lead jazz-ish bands, or I’m going to do electronic music that has nothing to do with either of those. And when I finished my in-person requirements at Brandeis, a rental opened up across the street from my best friend in L.A. And I was immediately like, I don’t see any reason why I can’t just move back right now. A month later, I was on the road back to L.A.
That upheaval of family, aesthetics, and location made me an even more anxious, rootless, and uncertain person than I already was. So when on Mask you hear me doing something for five or six bars, and then without transition completely turning away from it, almost irreparably, and just moving to a different musical behavior, it’s me trying to mirror my psyche.
And also in that period, “this feels good, this feels too good, let’s find a challenging way to deal with this unearned pleasure,” and never being able to settle on something. In “The Wee of Us,” all I could settle on is playing one simple chord 150 times. That feels perfect to me. That point of identifying and auditioning these different types of gestures and feelings again and again through that form, and none of them quite fitting me—in a way, that feels authentic. The only thing is to just completely stop and enter what feels to me like a meditative space, where any kind of effort just falls away. Like, everyone just play your assigned note, and let’s just play that over and over again, and in this space we have room to not search so much, to not feel so urgent about wondering what’s right or what’s next.
Having come into Mask knowing already that it had been created in a context of unease and loss, I have to admit that I expected something more somber, generally speaking. But there seems to be a lot of joyous energy in this music, as well.
Right. Grieving has been a hard thing to come by, for a variety of reasons. Because there was so much loss so quickly, it became almost impossible to process. You can make it a full-time job to deal with those things, or you can deal with them while you deal with the rest of your life, or you can ignore them. I’m kind of an all-or-nothing person, and because I was having to attend to other aspects of my family that was also grieving, my career, my location, I didn’t really have time to marinate in thoughtful grieving. And I think that somehow gets processed into an anxious energy that builds up, and that energy gets expressed as a kind of manic exuberance. It becomes almost like raw generic weirdness and intensity, and somehow, in this side of my work, it comes out as celebrating and joyous. In other aspects of my work, it comes out darker. But the jazz stuff has become kind of a counterweight to other tendencies I have that are a little darker.
Mask is available on Orenda Records; orendarecords.bandcamp.com. The David Dominique Ensemble celebrates the album’s release at Nublu Classic, 62 Ave. C, on Nov. 15 at 9 and 10pm; nublu.net.