After making a mark with his work in Bells Atlas and Brijean, Dougie Stu indulges in expansive jazz with ‘Familiar Future.’ (Dougie Stu)
For years, Douglas Stuart’s jazz bass chops and pop sensibility made him a crucial voice in Oakland’s music scene—one in which he tended to find himself just outside the spotlight.
He plays bass and keyboard, sings backing vocals and produces for the band Bells Atlas, a neo-soul and psychedelic pop quartet that has performed at festivals like Phono Del Sol, opened for Boots Riley’s The Coup and toured with the live show of popular podcast Snap Judgment. Last year, Stuart debuted on another project, Brijean—led by his partner in music and in life, percussionist Brijean Murphy—where he fleshed out her conga-driven house and disco with cool-toned keys.
Now, Stuart strikes out on his own with his solo debut as Dougie Stu, Familiar Future. The spiritual jazz album—recorded prior to the pandemic—brings together some of the most talented, genre-defying players from Oakland and beyond. The lush, instrumental project has a comforting feel, like the onset of a pleasant dream in a well-deserved slumber. Flute, violin and cello drive exploratory melodies cushioned in shimmering keys, with the gentle pitter-patter of percussion like rain falling outside a window.
“I’ve definitely found myself going to a lot of music that’s more expansive—with slower tempos and more space in the music—because everything feel so heavy and overbearing in the world right now,” says Stuart in a Zoom interview from New Mexico, where he and Murphy recently relocated from the Bay Area.
While Stuart typically turns down his jazz improvisations on his pop-oriented work, he got to indulge his skills as a player and arranger on Familiar Future. Jeff Parker, one of Stuart’s musical idols from when he was growing up in Chicago, joins him with guitar playing that at times evokes flamenco and surf rock. An ensemble of strings and wind instruments add intrigue and drama, with Marcus Stephans on bass clarinet and flute, Shaina Evoniuk on violin and Crystal Pascucci on cello. Maya Kronfeld lends the music a vintage feel on the Fender Rhodes piano. Murphy’s congas accompany Latin jazz percussion by John Santos, who has played with greats like Tito Puente and Dizzie Gillespie, and drumming by Hamir Atwal of Tune-Yards.
In addition to the big group effort, Familiar Future represents a deepening of Stuart’s collaboration with Murphy. Surprisingly, Stuart says the couple avoided playing music together during their first years of dating because he didn’t want to mix their relationship and their professional lives. That changed one rainy day in Berkeley. “Brijean was like, ‘Let’s write a song,’” says Stuart. “It was super easy and fun, and since then we’ve had a really natural creative chemistry that I’m in awe of still.”
Murphy says she’s enjoyed watching each other grow and establish their voices as bandleaders. (The 2019 Brijean debut, Walkie Talkie, is the first time Murphy stepped into the spotlight as well; she was previously a touring percussionist with Toro y Moi and Poolside.) “His music, to me, is really tranquil, yet cinematic and complex in an emotional way,” she says. “It’s a pleasure as a percussionist playing with such amazing musicians. Everything kind of melded perfectly.”
The imprint of some of Stuart’s inspirations, Alice Coltrane and Lonnie Liston Smith, is audible throughout Familiar Future. Works by these spiritual jazz innovators from the 1960s and ’70s have had a resurgence in popularity in recent years; for listeners, myself included, their uplifting, transcendent melodies and unhurried song structures have nurtured introspection and much-needed optimism during the pandemic, when time seems to have slowed down.
Coltrane’s influential album, Journey in Satchidananda, marked the start of a spiritual path for the harpist and composer after the death of her husband, John Coltrane. Stuart didn’t immediately make the connection to a similarly healing role spiritual jazz has played in his life. But in our interview, he reflects on how working on Familiar Future has allowed to center, process, refocus and renew. Amid the slowdown in work and the isolation of sheltering in place, he also lost both of his parents within six months.
“It’s been really tough,” he says, pausing to collect himself. “But [I’ve had] the space and time to process it that I otherwise would not have, and would have had to make tough decisions—like taking time off of work and the inevitable letting people down.”
Creating Familiar Future helped Stuart slow down and turn inward. As we enter the winter season, when many of us will be spending more time alone and indoors, he wants to offer his listeners a similar experience of grounding. “It feels nice to have music that encourages you to breathe,” says Stuart, “and expand and process.”
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