Before I tell you anything about Ferndale-based saxophonist and improviser Joseph Dugan, go ahead and click ‘play’ on his new song, streaming above.
Take your time, we’ll wait.
Just sit and listen.
If that sounds like background music for your daily yoga and meditation session, then Dugan’s done his job. He’s co-founder of Samastah Yoga in Downtown Ferndale, and his art and yoga practice are intricately connected.
“I found meditation when I was 8,” says Dugan. “I started practicing meditation and even led my first class at recess, teaching my friends to chant ‘Om.’”
Dugan grew up in Waterford, and says he joined the elementary school band as a saxophonist before the age of 10. “My introduction to jazz and yoga were very close.”
He started attending yoga classes at 21, and the rest is history: he’s accredited with 200 hours of training at Evolve Yoga in Keego Harbor, and it was during this time that he wrote, improvised and arranged the majority of his new album, “Swaha.”
He then took the recordings with him to India for further yogi training.
“It was interesting to listen back to one experience while in the midst of a completely different experience,” says Dugan, noting that it became a kind of musical memoir, pieced together and manifested through adventurous experimentation. “It was like taking a strand of home with me [to India] in this abstract way, and listening to it [in India] informed how I wound up mixing it.”
Improvising but not composing
“Swaha” was recorded between 2015 and 2016. Since much of the album is a collage of unwritten improvisations captured into melody, it will be celebrated with a listening party, rather than a traditional concert.
“I just love the experience of exploring sounds, and discovering those moments when something beautiful happens,” says Dugan. “This album’s unique because some things are written, but I mainly do improvisational music. One song had a small sonic environment created for it, and then Kathy Blanchard added some viola and Nathan Smith played clarinet, and [J. Durrell] Gibbs on percussion, improvising their own parts in the sonic setting.”
Dugan plays a handful of instruments, but the saxophone is something special for him. His influences include Sonny Rollins, who, of course, also does yoga, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Colin Stetson, and, lastly, in terms of songwriting, Sufjan Stevens. Dugan’s learned and has performed some jazz standards in the past, but he’s been inclined to keep his saxophone work strictly improvisational. Growing up in Waterford with a canal in his backyard, he fondly recalls “playing to the lake,” standing at the shore and just experiencing the soundwaves of his notes carried back to him across the water.
“I just stumble across beautiful things. And improvisation is not without form. It disappears, but it does manifest, for a moment.” – Joseph Dugan
When Dugan performs with other local free-jazz artists at Samastah Yoga events (known as “sound baths”), clapping is discouraged between songs.
“I learned from studying sacred music that clapping at the end of a song would just create extra sound waves in the room and thus shake up the energy, dissipating the resonance of what was created in the room,” he says.
But his construction on “Swaha” was more intricate than just freeform improv. “It’s almost like found audio in a way,” he says, in that he found ways to sample improvisational recordings of his four main collaborators, as well as his own saxophone and synthesizer components. It’s an arranged improvisational album, if there is such a thing.
One thing to note about the above track is it sounds like a range of instruments, but it is almost all saxophone, looped and tuned and pitch-shifted through software.
Dugan “loves the exploration,” but shies away from the title ‘composer,’ instead saying he “won’t typically hear things” in his head before “making them.”
“I just stumble across beautiful things,” Dugan says. “And improvisation is not without form. It disappears, but it does manifest, for a moment.”
Dugan said he had been around the jazz scene for a while, performing and befriending artists like saxophonist Marcus Elliot, but soon started drifting toward improvisational performance. He also performs with a free-jazz ensemble called Sura. You can find other works by Dugan on his Bandcamp page.
Samastah Yoga’s listening party for “Swaha” is Friday, May 31st, at 7:30 pm in Ferndale. Admission is free.