The deadpan comic genius Buster Keaton, "The Great Stone Face," was a frequent star at Keystone Studios.
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Before movies featured synchronized sound, California's Keystone Studios made comedic film shorts. Originally, theatergoers would watch these movies to the sound of the house Wurlitzer organ.
Fast forward to now. You're watching the same silent film, but this time, the live accompaniment comes from a jazz ensemble with a turntablist. Chances are, that band is Keystone, and the leader is trumpeter and composer Dave Douglas.
"When I started this band, the idea was to take these silent black-and-white films from the teens and re-imagine the score," Douglas says. "I thought that the images could be served better by something a little more 21st-century, if you will."
Re-Animating Buster Keaton
In 2005, Keystone's first release showed that silent film characters could move to modern, groove-based instrumental music. The comedy stars — a bouncy Buster Keaton, a frenetic Fatty Arbuckle, even the bathing beauty Mabel Norman — all danced to a different beat. Douglas wrote music that did not match the movies scene-by-scene. Instead, he complemented them in a musical way.
"I had no idea what the plot was," says Douglas. "They improvised quite a bit, and then they would put the film together at the end. They weren't as concerned with a rigorous linear narrative concept. And jazz is a lot like that."
Keystone recently released Moonshine, a live recording during a tour stop in Ireland. The name comes from a 1918 Keystone film fragment, starring Keaton and Arbuckle.
"They went out West, and they made these little vignettes," Douglas says. "I don't know if they had a full script in mind, but they shot all these different scenes of themselves falling off cliffs, assembling armies, and rescuing girls. The quality of the filmmaking is very rich for me, and that's what inspires me as a musician to get up and write some new music for that."
Is It Jazz?
Composing new music is one challenge, but setting it to film is another. Douglas had a more immediate concern: integrating a DJ into an improvising jazz band.
"I feel like a lot of it was getting those very gritty sounds coming from the turntable and getting the laptop integrated with the drums," he says. "If you listen closely [to 'Dog Star'], the rhythm shifts from being very straight and mechanical to being very kind of loose and swing-oriented. And back again... a few times."
Keystone features Douglas on trumpet, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, Adam Benjamin on Fender Rhodes electric piano, Brad Jones on an acoustic/electric hybrid bass, drummer Gene Lake, and DJ Olive on turntables and laptop. This raises the question: What kind of jazz is this, exactly? Douglas avoids easy categories.
"Musicians should do what they want to do, and everybody has a different viewpoint about what the music should be," he says. "As a composer, I feel that with each project, if I'm not somehow pushing that envelope of what the music can be, and of what the tradition I received is, I feel like somehow I'm failing."
A New Business Model for Jazz
Douglas experiments with both the music and the market for it. He is the co-founder of Greenleaf Music, an artist-driven record label and distribution platform for fans. Greenleaf connects Keystone's music to the user experience, sometimes overnight. In April, the band completed a four-night residency at the Jazz Standard club in New York. Each live performance was professionally mixed and made available online within 24 hours of the final note. (Two of those selections, "Dog Star" and "Kitten," are available for download here.)
"Downloading is not for everybody," Douglas says." But it does permit us, especially in the jazz world, to transmit what we're doing from night to night, and just to make all that immediately available. We're still making CDs, and we're still distributed in stores. But I feel like there's this other side of music distribution that's becoming available."
Douglas is one of several independent jazz musicians to experiment with a new business model. Part of his strategy includes releasing the individual instrumental tracks of the title song, "Moonshine," to anyone who wants to tinker with them. It's an exercise that's partly social media, partly an invitation to make a mash-up, and possibly a brilliant marketing tool.
"Everything's changing so fast in the music industry and in the technology of making music," Douglas says. "In the digital age, a mixed, finished product is one version of what can be arranged with these bits and bytes. Putting out that digital information to people who have this very sophisticated gear in their homes now, and even just on their laptops... on their cell phones, you kind of permit this music to have a life of its own in an entirely new way."