Wednesday, December 17, 2014

JackyTerrasson and his Quartet heat things up at Smoke Jazz & Supper Club Saturday December 13, 2014

Jacky Terrasson

The Anglo-French pianist Jacky Terrasson brought his latest quartet to the intimate surroundings of Smoke  Jazz & Supper club for a three set, three night engagement this past weekend.  A young talent from the start, Jacky gained widespread recognition after winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition in 1993 at the age of twenty-seven. Now in his forty-eighth year, Terrasson has established himself as a major voice on the piano with his imaginative medleys, where he re-works  songs from the American songbook, combining them with more contemporary classics. In this gig he was joined by his bassist Burniss Travis III, drummer Jonathan Pinson and percussionist Mauricio Herrera.  Terrasson is an in-demand pianist who performs at many festivals as well as prestigious piano showcases around the globe. It was a special treat to get to see this ebullient artist up close and personal and the superb surrounds of  Smoke, with its outstanding acoustics and room for a Steinway grand, is the perfect venue to catch such a performer.

Terrasson is as energetic and artist as you will find and it is this joyful energy that makes his “live” shows so appealing. It is amazing how many kilowatts this slender man can generate when he sets himself at the keyboard. He can be delicate or brash with an attack that is sometimes stabbing or appropriately gentle.  Clad in red shoes and striped socks, his feet are constantly in motion, keeping time, setting the pace; sometimes torrid, sometimes languishing. Bassist Travis held constant eye contact with the pianist, sensing his moves, reacting to the changes and anticipating the breaks in tempo.  Drummer Pinson peered watchfully from behind his cymbals; at times propulsive, but often delicately transitioning with whisper accents all according to the direction taken by the leader. 
Terrasson started the set off with a repeating vamp eventually blossoming into his own percussive version of the Rogers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine.”  He included brief references to the traditional folk song “Billy Boy” and introduced swinging interludes that sent the crowd to cheering. Forever the performer, Terrasson eventually morphed the song into a cha-cha with some spectacular pianistic runs, before returning to the main theme in his own inimitable way.

On Juan Tizol’s “Caravan,” Terrasson started the song by using the inside soundboard of the Steinway to create a slowly building, driving beat.  The band joined in, all using their instruments percussively, creating a rhythmic backdrop of sound that led into the familiar melody.  Terrasson is an extremely animated pianist, part a moaning Keith Jarrett part a dancing Jerry Lee Lewis, always kinetic in his approach. The pianist discarded his jacket allowing himself more freedom of motion and you could see the perspiration dampen his shirt rapidly as the enthusiasm oozed out of his pores.  The man loves playing and it shows. He again morphed the classic “Caravan” into the Michael Jackson tune “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough” to the audience’s delight.

Terrasson started the next song moaning along with his slow and sensitive introduction to the classic “You Don’t Know What Love Is” before introducing elements of other songs into the ballad. Pinson was particularly deft at creating a barely perceptible beat with his soft mallets. Burniss had a poignant solo on bass, as Terrasson stabbed at a note on his piano in the background creating the clang of a school bell.  A brief side road into smaltz was heard as Terrasson introduced  the theme to the film “Summer of 42” into his playing before he raised the tempo a notch with a funky vamp that had a strutting quality to it, eventually returning to the coda of the original song. 

During his “live” performances there is always a sense of bearing witness to the music being spontaneously created. Even within the confines of  a practiced repertoire, no two versions of the same songs are ever played alike. Terrasson can change direction at any time, with his band mates having to be prepared to instantly adapt to wherever the leaders imagination takes them.

The Miles Davis song “Nardis,” famously associated with the Bill Evans trio, was the next selection of the evening. Terrasson noodled on the theme, along the way interjecting snippets of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” along with whatever else struck his fancy. Once again, as he does so well, he transitioned the Davis tune into a rendition of the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five,” with its syncopated 5/4 beat, before eventually returning back to the Davis original. “My Favorite Things” was another brief detour and then a rousing reprise of the Desmond classic at the end.

In true Christmas spirit, Terrasson ended the set with a little taste of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” before leaving the stage as the crowd applauded appreciatively. Jacky Terrasson’s latest album is titled Gouache .

Friday, December 5, 2014

NOTES ON JAZZ The Best of Jazz 2014

This year was an interesting one the wide diversity of music that was offered from a myriad of artists all operating under the all inclusive umbrella that is known as jazz. Like always, for one to try to limit one's appreciation of such diverse musical richness to a "top ten" is an exercise in futility and speciousness.

Here is my list of some of the most interesting and in my opinion worthy offerings that were released this year. There very well maybe some deserving artists and releases that for whatever reason I was not able to get a chance to listen to, so my apologies.This is a very subjective listing, but I believe an inclusive one making room for different genres; for new as well as established artists.

Here in no particular order is my list of the best " JAZZ" of 2104 :

Ernie Watts Quartet : A Simple Truth- Flying Dolphin Records A masterful album from a masterful musician whose sound is all his own.

Dr. John  Ske De Dat De Dat The Spirit of Louis Armstrong- Proper Records

Jane Ira Bloom Sixteen Sunsets- Outline records

Joe Beck -Get me- Whaling City Sound

Adam Unsworth/Byron Olson/John Vancore- Balance   A brilliant compositional tour de force.

Michael Blake-Tiddy Boom- Sunnyside Records. Just a wonderful album.

David Ullman 8 Corduroy- Little Sky Records   A great new work by the ambitious guitarist/composer

Click here for a sample of  Corduroy 

Matt Wilson Quartet with john Medeski : Gathering Call - Palmeto Records

Dan Weiss Fourteen- PI Records

Denny Zeitlin Trio Stairway tot the Stars- Sunnyside

Dewa Budjana Joged Kahyangan- MoonJune Records

Ben Allison: The Stars Look Very Different Today- Sonic Camera Records

Pete Robbins: Pyramid- Hate Laugh Music

Janis Siegel : Nightsongs- Palmetto Records

Jimmy Cobb: The Original Mob- Smoke Sessions

Freddy Bryant-Dreamscape-GJK Sound

Jeff Ballard Trio: Time's Tales- Okeh/Sony Masterworks

Elizabeth Sheppard- Rewind- Linus Entertainment

Dhafer Yousef: Birds Requiem-Okeh

Steven Richman's Harmonie Ensemble/New York: Henry Mancini Music for Peter Gunn - Harmonia Mundi USA

Michael Wollny Trio- Weltentraum- ACT Music

Zara McFarland: If You Knew Her - Brownswood Recordings

Sammy Figueroa/Glaucia Nasser: Talisman- Savant Records

David Bixler's Auction Project: Slink-Bixler Music

Keith Jarrett/Charlie Haden: Last Dance: ECM Records

Marc Weinstien: Latin Jazz Underground: Zoho 

Click here for a sample of Latin Underground

Enjoy all of this great music and support the musicians by buying their cds and going to see them "live" whenever you get the chance. Have a wonderful holiday and keep listening and reading!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Michael Blake's Homage to Pres and Hawk "Tiddy Boom"

Saxophonist Michael Blake with Frank Kimbrough on piano

Saxophonist Michael (not Mike) Blake is one of those artists who have a sustained appreciation of the tradition and for those who have come before him. In 1984 while still in Canada he had an opportunity to work with jazz stalwarts Cecil Taylor, Kenny Wheeler and Steve Coleman. The Canadian born musician has been a New York resident since1987. Blake paid his dues backing artist like Chubby Checker and organist “Brother” Jack McDuff among others.  In 1990 Blake was catapulted into the eclectic world of multi-disciplined artist John Lurie and joined Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, a critically acclaimed group that included Lurie and his brother Evan, guitarists Marc Ribot and Dave Tronzo, bassist Billy Martin and trumpeter Steven Bernstein. The group has maintained a transient presence in the downtown New York music scene for over twenty resurfacing occasionally for special occasions. Blake also became the solo saxophone voice of the group Slow Poke and worked extensively in his own groups and in groups led by the progressive young bassist Ben Allison.

Michael Blake: Tiddy Boom Sunnyside SSC1396

Blake’s latest release Tiddy Boom, is a reference to a phrase Blake once heard idol Lester Young call out to a drummer on a film clip. Pres asked the drummer  to give him “a little tickity boom, please.” Blake proves that good, swinging music played in a style reminiscent of the old masters like Young and Coleman Hawkins can be just as powerful and compelling as it was when these iconic saxophonists were alive and wailing. Blake has mastered that deep throaty voice on his instrument that was popular when these giants ruled the bandstand. He plays with a legato sound that wrings the essence of a note out in a sultry, lingering way. This lushness can be heard on such songs as the loping “Skinny Dip,” and the rhumba inspired title song “Tiddy Boom,” “ A Good Day for Pres” and the beautifully paced “Hawk’s Last Rhumba,” one of my favorite pieces on the album for the resplendent sound Blake gets on his horn in homage to Hawkins. 
While the music is derivative it is never copied and the group backing Blake is superb. Ben Allison’s plucky bass lines strut majestically throughout and Rudy Royston’s tasteful cymbal work and feathery brushes are a delight. Pianist Kimbrough subtly shines with his piano accompaniment and he and Blake often have a sensitive interplay that is palpable, especially on the boppish “Coastline.” Kimbrough’s solo on “Letters in Disguise” is a swinging display of masterful keyboard work derivative but contemporary, and Blake breaks loose with a solo that shows he too is not stuck in a time warp.
The jaggedly modern “Boogaloop” let’s you know these guys have progressed to a level of musical sophistication that has reached beyond their masters. The last composition titled “The Ambassadors” is a musical declaration from Blake and his cohorts that this music will always have its representation in the repertoire and these young lions will be both respectful ambassadors of that sound as well as creators of their own. There is something here for everyone.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

A River Runs Through the Manhattan School of Music's Borden Auditorium

The MSM Jazz Philharmonic and Conductor Justin DiCioccio

On Friday November 7, 2014, the Manhattan School of Music School’s  Jazz Philharmonic Orchestra, under the able direction of maestro Justin DiCioccio, produced  a river of sound that washed through the school’s Borden auditorium to a packed house of music lovers.

The occasion was the  World premiere of University of South Florida’s distinguished professor Chuck Owen’s  masterful suite River Runs in its
entirety. The 2013 recording was among the nominees for the 2014 Grammy Awards in the categories of Best Instrumental Composition for Bound Away,and Best Instrumental Arrangement for Side Hikes: A Ridge Away. Both compositions are part  five-movement concerto, combining a full symphony orchestra with a jazz ensemble and jazz soloists on violin, guitar and saxophone. The soloists were the tenor saxophone firebrand Donny McCaslin, the sensitive violinist Sara Caswell and the masterful guitarist Jack Wilkins.

The music is an exhilarating compositional tour de force, combining the multiple musical voices, colors and timbres that a full orchestra can command with the individual jazz expressions of the featured solo instruments of electric guitar, tenor saxophone and violin.

On this night maestro DiCioccio was exuberant in his direction of the music, as his orchestra produced brilliant tones and waves of sound that swept over the audience in the music’s ebbs and flow. The music was conceived by Mr. Owen as a representation of multiple adventure trips he has taken canoeing and rafting down various rivers in this country. Each movement is a musical depiction of various aspects of these trips. 

The opening composition “Prologue: Dawn’s at River’s Edge” is an impressionistic  piece, all about the anticipation of waking up to nature in the early morning ready to embark on another challenging journey down the mysterious waters that lie ahead.

The Grammy nominated “Movement I: Bound Away” is a musical recollection of the shimmering light reflected off the rippling pools of the Greenbrier and New Rivers of West Virginia. The trip meanders through a gorge where the thunderous sound of the approaching rapids is the clarion call that Owens' music recreates.

“Movement II :Dark Waters , Slow Waters” is a representation of Owen's time on the Hillsborough River in Florida, A river edged with drooping cypress and lined with murky pools of ominous swampy waters. The music becomes much more tranquil as you go on a more languishing journey through the humid, moss covered banks of the Everglades. There is a sense of foreboding in this piece, an ominous feel of not really knowing what to expect around the next bend of the route.

“Movement III : Chutes and Wave Trains” is a depiction of Owen's time on the Chatooga River as he makes his way down through Georgia and South Carolina. The music compresses and swells at times, similar to the way the water is compressed when funneled through a restrictive chute carved out of the architecture of the river banks; building up pressure and speed, only to be released on the other side of the obstruction, into the opening calm.

“Movement IV: Side Hikes- A Ridge Away” This Grammy nominated composition is inspired from Owen's trips to the Green River in Utah and the Colorado River in Colorado,  and was also adapted from the CD Ridgelines, a recording made by the saxophonist Jack Wilkins ( no relation to the guest guitarist) who was the featured saxophonist on the original recording. The unifying factor in both pieces is the concept of reaching a nearby ridge for an overview of your surroundings. Finally reaching the ridge you see many other ridges in your horizon, many never to be experienced, always just a “Ridge Away” from your reach. The composition appropriately creates a wistful  sense of longing for the next great adventure.

“Movement V: Perhaps the Better Claim: The River  of No Return” With a line borrowed from Robert Frost’s haunting poem “A Road Not Taken”, Owen's chooses this title for a musical trip down Idaho’s Salmon River, a river known for its fierce rapids, its deep canyon, its treacherous terrain and its stunning scenery. The musical depiction sent the occupants of this auditorium-on-pontoons into a swirling and satisfying conclusion.

The music was masterfully played by the MSM’s Jazz Philharmonic, who conquered the suite's demanding musical nuances, creating the atmosphere that so brilliantly depicts the natural musical sounds of the river rafting experience.

The soloists were in top form. Ms. Caswell was particularly poignant when her violin was featured as a soloist and at times in counterpoint to her two fellow soloists. Saxophonist McCaslin is a firebrand of a player. He always brings a sense of energy and excitement to his work. He was particularly effective producing a "waves of sound” deluge that flowed from his horn much like the rapids of Owen's compositions. Guitarist Jack Wilkins was playing a Fender Telecaster through an amp and the sound was unfortunately somewhat muted from where I sat. Wilkins is one of those players whose technique is precise and immaculately clean; a consummate player whose melodic solos, (the ones I was I was able to hear clearly), were fluid, fleet and precise. His interplay with McCaslin was particularly noteworthy as the two fed off of each other brilliantly. 

Mr. Owen was in the audience for this performance and in speaking to him briefly afterwards he was obviously gratified to see his music performed so admirably.

To be able to imitate the sounds of nature; to be able to magically reproduce the rapturous feeling one can get from communing in the woods on such an endeavor as white river rafting or hiking is an extraordinary achievement.  I related to this album when I first reviewed it back in July of 2013 ( click here for a link to that review.) Now having seen it performed live by the MSM Jazz Philharmonic it only reinforces my original convictions. If you get a chance to see this work performed live and you enjoy commuting with nature you will not be disappointed with this brilliant piece of music.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Philosphy of the Spiritual: Part Three of My Interview with Bassist/Educator/Activist Richard Davis

Richard Davis

Richard Davis has always followed his muse throughout his career. A world class bassist, an avid horseman, a respected educator a socially conscious activist. 

Whether it be as an accomplished studio musician on mainstream albums by the likes of Barbara Streisand or as a pivotal driving force on a seminal album by Van Morrison or the rock steady bassist behind in inimitable Ms. Sarah Vaughan, Davis has always left his mark. As an important member of the progressive ensembles of Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill, Sun Rah  and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Davis has always let his music speak for itself. People noticed.

His ability as a classically trained bassist, had at one time, inspired a younger Davis to pursue a symphonic career. Racism often reared its ugly head and he was repeatedly rejected by the firmly entrenched white establishment that dominated the symphony scene in the fifties, sixties and seventies. He was often times not given the courtesy of a call back, even when it was obvious that he was the most accomplished of the contestants applying for the position. Undeterred, the talented  Davis could not be denied, eventually playing with such classical luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Gunther Schuller and Igor Stravinsky. Cream inevitably rises to the top.

Leaving the established jazz community in New York in 1977, where he was a respected member,Richard Davis's career took another turn, this time assuming the role of educator and mentor as a professor of classical bass at the University of Wisconsin, where he still teaches. Along the way Davis has made some beautiful music and inspired scores of aspiring musicians. Despite his generous spirit and stated goal to pass on his accumulated knowledge to the next generation, Davis, as a Black man in a predominantly white state, has seen and felt firsthand the ugly effects of racism, even in the bucolic setting of the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he lives. Undaunted by a lifetime of racially motivated slights, both real and perceived, Davis steadfastly maintains a surprisingly positive attitude and believes in sowing the seeds of racial harmony and acceptance. He supports education about racism and its roots and is hopeful that with open conversation between the races, we can come together in harmony.

As a musician and educator he has formed the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, which promotes educating students on the bass at an early age. As an activist Davis, formed the Retention Action Program (R.A.P.), an organization dedicated to increasing the retention levels for students of color at U of W. He is also President of the Madison Wisconsin Institute for Racial Healing, an organization dedicated to understanding the history and pathology of racism, with the goal of hoping to heal racism in individuals, communities, and institutions both in Wisconsin and throughout the USA.  So it was of great interest to speak to Mr. Davis about his experiences and listen to some of his philosophies about racism and how we can educate ourselves to prevent its continued proliferation to the next generation.

NOJ: Let’s get some of your views on the state of race relations in this country. In the nineteen sixties do you think you took a militant stance against racism?

RD: No I didn't take a militant stance, because militancy defeats the purpose. I didn't take any particular stand, I just thought it was something that I didn't like. I didn't go parading around.

NOJ: You have been an educator at University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1977. What made you leave New York?

RD: I just decided that I wanted to start teaching some younger people what I had learned.

NOJ: How did you find Wisconsin?

RD: Cold.

NOJ: Were the people of Wisconsin receptive to you as a Black educator in a relatively predominantly White state?

RD: Wisconsin has a reputation for being a racial state. I think … some people feared me because I was Black. They thought I was aloof, but I had to protect myself….Wisconsin is very racist.

NOJ: I take it you were a bit of a pioneer there?

RD: What do mean by a pioneer?

NOJ: Somebody that went ahead of other people and blazed the way. I take it by now there is much more diversity and integration in the school system?

RD: It’s still the same, nothing has changed.

NOJ: Well, that’s disheartening.

RD: I’m still working on diversity. I have some allies. I have lots of allies and I have a lot of people who don’t even realize that it exists there.

NOJ: Has affirmative action helped Wisconsin integrate more people of color into the educational system?

RD: When you look at the numbers there is still 3% Black and 8 % people of color and I don’t know what they are doing about that.

NOJ: You are now 84 years young. You have won numerous awards and accolades throughout your career including the nation’s highest honor the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award just this year. You have formed the Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists, The Retention Action Project (RAP), and SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) all reach out programs that inspire harmony and love. You've said you wanted to live to be 137 in order to do the things you still want to accomplish. What are some of those things that you feel remain undone for you?

RD: Well I think that going on a global quest will influence every part of your life. I talk about the oneness of humankind, the fact that we all come out of the same womb of an African woman. Only one tenth of one percent (of our genetic makeup) accounts of the difference is our skin color.*

* "If you ask what percentage of your genes is reflected in your external appearance, the basis by which we talk about race, the answer seems to be in the range of .01 percent," said Dr. Harold P. Freeman, the chief executive, president and director of surgery at North General Hospital in Manhattan, who has studied the issue of biology and race. "This is a very, very minimal reflection of your genetic makeup," Quote from a New York Times article August 2000, entitled "Do Races Differ, Not Really, Genes Show" by Natalie Angier.

Somewhere along the way it has been forgotten and we see each other with different skin instead of looking at each other as ourselves; one person, one human being. That theory, if it is practiced and gets a resurgence of the truth, it will cease a lot of problems. Like that shooting in Ferguson, MO. That’s because the police are afraid of Black people and Black people are afraid of White people. It comes from fear and ignorance. If we can gt past that fear factor and that ignorance factor we will make tremendous strides. You see,  this country is not built on equalization for everybody.  It is built on that fact that some of the White people are oppressors and the Black people are being oppressed by this attitude. A White kid gets treated different then a Black kid. Have you ever heard of a White kid being shot down by the police? So it is just a matter of equal treatment of each other and this will all go away.

NOJ:  Do you think both sides can reconcile their differences?

RD: Sure I think so, especially if there is enough going on and if people gather and talk to each other. Most of all White people have to talk to White people; Black people talking to White people is a good thing, but they have to start talking to each other. The police department already has an impression of what they are faced with when they see Black people. If you have five Black people standing on the corner talking, Police come by and they think something bad is going to happen. If they see five White people standing on the corner, they think nothing of it. That has got to change.

NOJ: It’s unfortunate but historical experience can sometimes create stereotypes that can be dangerously wrong. What has happened before is hard to erase from people’s minds and once established it is hard to break impressions and habits.

RD: Well I call it (being) emotionally attached. That is why some people are still singing the “Star Spangled Banner,” where so much of that is not true. They are singing “the home of the brave and the land of the free.”  People are singing that with fervor. Everybody is not free, but they continue to sing it.

NOJ : There is a national pride and sometimes people wrap themselves around the flag for the wrong reasons, but I would prefer that people believe in their country than not. Sometimes that belief is not validated by actions. There will always be things that are wrong in this country, but do you just stop people from showing some amount of patriotism?

RD: Well I am not a patriot. I am not a patriot because the country does not look at me in a way that they look at (White people.)  An American is not me; an American is a White person. When you talk about a Black person they are treated different. …I will be an American when I am treated like an American. But that …”land of the free and home of the brave,” wait a minute, let’s really look at the truth with intelligence, to see if it is true where we can continue to tout those things. I don’t consider myself an American, because I am not treated like a White person, an American is a White person.

NOJ: If you are not an American than what do you feel you are?

RD: I am an African-American misplaced in a land that does not accept me on the basis of my race.

NOJ: Well that is upsetting to me as a person who would hope by this time we have made our way to acceptance and inclusion and have made more progress than that.

RD: Well there should be more people like you who exercise that (sentiment.)  If a Black kid in school if he does something wrong they suspend him and take him to the Principal’s office. If a White kid does the same thing they just slap him on his wrist. So it is not a fair representation of saying we treat everybody with equal respect. Did you see the show Democracy Now. You should go to and look for the edition for August 19, 2014 and you will see a man named John Powell. He will explain this so well. He elaborates very elegantly on what I just told you.

NOJ:I’d be interested in knowing as a Black man in this country who has been around for many decades, what do you think of the current President and how effective he has been?

RD: I don’t get into politics that much. I know he is in a position that is very sensitive because he has to speak for White and Black people. He can’t show favor for one or the other and he is somebody who is in that position. It is not the Office of Dignity that is going to change anything.  He could be the President of the World; it is the individual person, walk around everyday life person who is the one subjected to this and the only one who can change it. 

NOJ: With all the evil that seems to be cropping up all over the World. Do you believe music and specifically jazz music can be an answer to some of the problems that we have in communicating with each other across sectarian, racial and ethnic lines? Do you see music as a vehicle that can bridge this gap?

RD: Basically speaking, no. There has been a lot of jazz recorded, there have been a lot of protest songs recorded talking about race, but have things changed? You might get a few converts, because of what you are saying, but not enough to make an overall general big change. It won’t come from one entity; it has to come from the heart of the person.  Even with the laws that they they have in place, that doesn’t change anything, it has to come from the heart of the person. I have many White associates who would say the same things that I just said who are making a difference, and (they are) mostly females!

NOJ:  How does that heart get changed, how do you think that change can come about? Is activism the answer?

RD: First you have to be educated to a high level of education. I have tons of books in my house, most of them written by White people, who are anti-racist. I go to conferences where all these people gather together and try to discuss these things and then take it back to their homes and try to promote an attitude. Some of the teachers, who are white and want to go to these conferences, they ask their administrators for the money to go and some administrators will say that  is a good thing we will give you the money and some say  what is the use of all that? It’s been like that for four or five hundred years.

NOJ: Do you think that the races will eventually undergo miscegenation to the point that it doesn't really matter anymore?

RD: it’s happening now. The minorities that they talked about in the last decade are no longer the minorities; they are the majority in some cases. People don’t use that word minority anymore because there is more Hispanic growth that is making them change. That is frightening some White people because they see themselves as not the majority anymore. The whole thing is a transformation of attitudes and that takes a long haul.

NOJ: So the answer is time. Time equalizes everything.

RD: Well used time. See, the education system is racist, the prison system is racist, the judicial courts are racist, the Religions are racist, so you have a whole system of institutionalized racism that has to be readdressed and reassessed. There are more Black people in jail then Whites. There are teachers who don’t regard their Black students as well as they regard their White students. So the whole thing has capitalized on organized institutional racism.

NOJ: Do you think that if there was more economic equality and opportunity in the country that the differences in the races wouldn't be as exacerbated?

RD: Well economics is a good part of the problem, because it gets to be classicism not racism. How many Black people are making the same amount of money that an ordinary White person is making? I must say that impoverished people are just not Black people either; there are many White people that are very impoverished. But their skin color gives them an advantage, even their names gives them an advantage. You see many violations on the scene where racism crosses over to classicism. A middle class White teacher teaching Black kids-first of all she is afraid of them, she is not going to hang out with them, accept anything that they say as worth anything, she won’t even call on them when they raise their hands ( In class).

NOJ: How-if you have a young White, woman teacher, who is working in a predominantly Black school, and she fears for herself and her safety- how do you overcome that embedded fear?

RD: First of all that is a lot to overcome, because (in many cases) all of her life she was never subjected to knowing about a culture other than her own. So she was involved with people who look like her, think like her, act like her and she has, what you might call, a shell around her existence in relation to other people. Even when college students come here from neighboring towns around Madison, some of them have never been around people of color. So they come in here with their naiveté and their non-exposure, looking at Black people and they are afraid of them and consequently they react to them as if they are their enemies. I will give you an example; a White woman gets on the elevator at the University, the elevator stops, and a Black man gets into the elevator and she starts screaming. The police come and they say “What has he done to you, mam?” and she says “He startled me.”

NOJ: That is just sad.

RD: Well it shows that her experience with a person of another color is fear. She heard they were going to do something to her. A White woman worked for me for three years at the campus. One day she came to my office and started crying. I said “What’s wrong with you?” She said “Well my mother told me that if I was ever going to be in a small room with a Black person I would be raped.”  Now this woman had been working with me for three years and all that time I would give her work and we would be in a small room. Now for all that time she struggled thinking, “He is going to rape me one of these days,” and she wanted to tell her mother that she had scarred her mind with this concept. That is what it is; the parents perpetuate a racist attitude. I have seen White women clutch their purses when I go near them, or standing in line behind them, they will clutch their purses.

NOJ:I guess it is hard to relate to this as a White person. 

RD: We just don’t know each other. I live in a very plush house; it is on the South Side of Madison, lakefront and I am the only Black person in this neighborhood. Now, there are White teachers in the public (school) system in a town that is only ten minutes away from here, that will not go into the supermarket that I go into, because they are afraid. My girlfriend is White and I asked her, when she goes into this market how many people does she see that are Black? She says “maybe about three.”  It was all White people that went to this store. So these teachers perpetuate racism by telling their friends “don’t go onto the South Side of Madison because something will happen to you.” I live on the South Side. I have been here since 1987, but they are afraid to go and they have never even been here.

An Administrator from the University, when they built a new building on the dividing line between North and South (Madison), she asked me “What should I do?” I knew what she was implying; now she was going to be going to work on the South side. I said Get your laptop and your chair with wheels on it and roll on down to the South Side with it.”

Things are changing on the South Side now because gentrification is coming in. They are building a lot of plush apartment buildings and other things. Then those White people will feel better about coming on the South Side, because more people that look like them are coming. The Black people in the neighborhood, some of them will have to move out, because they can’t afford it anymore. It is all around me where I am living. Now they have a Dunkin’ Donuts here… and tall buildings and hospitals, it’s gentrification and it will change the attitude of people being afraid to come here. I have never been to my neighborhood supermarket where I see more Black people than White people, but people who don’t live here think there are only Black people going in there.

NOJ: I hope things will change and I would like to believe that we are better than that and strive to be better and be open.  I agree with you that it has to start with us. It has to start with us teaching inclusion to our children and then they doing the same with their children.

RD: I always say, you know how people put pictures up on their refrigerator? Well put some Black people up there. (Laughter)

NOJ:  I really appreciate your time Richard. I am sure the readers will enjoy the conversation. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Philosophy of the Spiritual Part Two of an Interview with the Bassist Richard Davis

Even if you are not a jazz fan, you have undoubtedly heard the deep, warm sound of Richard Davis' bass.
In the late sixties and into the seventies he worked as an in demand studio musician and was featured on landmark albums by some of the most identifiable artists of the time. He was on at least three albums by pop diva Barbara Streisand including My Name is Barbara (1965) and Color Me Barbara (1966). He was the bassist on Van Morrison's stream of consciousness album Astral Weeks (1968), he made an appearance on Paul Simon's There Goes Rhyming Simon (1973) and worked on three of Janis Ian's albums Stars ( 1974), Between the Lines (1975) and Aftertones (1976). He was the probing bottom sound on Bruce Springsteen's "Meeting Across the River" from Born to Run (1975). How many Bill Evans fans recall him as one of two bassists on the meeting of Stan Getz & Bill Evans from 1973? He worked with the jazz singers Sarah Vaughan(with whom he toured and recorded with  on at least six of her albums), Chris Connor, Joe Williams and Etta Jones.Perhaps Davis' most impressive work was as a crucial contributing member of groups led by the more progressive musicians of the time including Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill , Sun Ra, Elvin Jones and Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Davis's bass was a sought after sound and he worked with a veritable who's who of  saxophonists
including Ben Webster, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Stitt, Phil Woods, Joe Henderson, Lou Donaldson, Sam Rivers, Clifford Jordan, the aforementioned Dolphy and Kirk and the altoist/arranger Oliver Nelson to name just a few. His only regret is not getting to play with John Coltrane or Theolonius Monk, although Coltrane showed some interest in playing with him, but his friend Jimmy Garrison was already playing bass in the saxophonist's later quartet.

If that wasn't enough the classically trained bassist played in symphonic orchestras under the direction of Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein among others.

In this part two of my three part interview with Mr. Davis we explore the lineage and future of the bass in jazz,  his career, the people he played with, his take on the classical bass and his impressions about teaching at the University of Wisconsin where he has been a professor of classical bass since 1977. 

NOJ: To continue where we left off , in the pantheon of jazz bass players, is this list a fair chronology of who you think evolved the bass through their own innovations, from where it was in the early 1900's to where it is today? I’m thinking of Page, Stewart, Blanton, Pettiford, Brown, LaFaro , Chambers, Ron Carter and yourself ? After that then where is it going.

RD: I agree with what you said as far as the lineage

NOJ: And then who? Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten etc.

RD: Victor Wooten, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, those guys are playing crazy stuff. Don’t leave out Jaco Pastorious.

Jaco Pastorius
NOJ: Oh no, your right Jaco definitely deserves to be in there. They are all so technically proficient and play with tremendous speed, but sometimes I feel like they lack the poignancy that guys like you bring to the bass. Can there be a joining of this high speed proficiency with corresponding poignancy?

RD: I see. Well I’d rather leave that question alone.

NOJ: Let’s go back to your own musical chronology. You started in Chicago and you were playing with the great Ahmad Jamal, when you were switched spots with another bass player and summoned to New York to play with Don Shirley in 1952 is that right?

RD: That is right.

NOJ: I read somewhere that Shirley also studied psychology and that he did in the field experiments with his audience, checking to see if his use of certain chord patterns or notes could elicit certain responses. Did you experience that with him?
Don Shirley Tonal Expressions 1955
From the Album liner notes on Don Shirley's Tonal Expressions 1955 by Al "JazzBo" Collins:

"One of  the favored standards, "My Funny Valentine" receives especially good interpretation by Don Shirley with fine bowing by Richard Davis. He conveys more of the Pagliacci tragedy of this melody than we have ever heard before. The beauty and the sadness are real. The tonal effects are particularly effective here with the bowing laying a nice background for the piano notes to be dropped upon."

RD: This is the first time I am hearing about this.

NOJ: I read about Shirley and he apparently studied psychology and was interested in the effects of certain musical chords on people. I was wondering if you could shed some light on this information from firsthand experience?

RD: I have no idea about that.

NOJ: I thought it was coincidental that you played with Shirley and you also mentioned playing with Sunny Blount or Sun Ra, as he was later called. You told a very funny story about playing with him one time at a Calmut City burlesque house. He told you he could make a drunk in the audience stand up and listen just by playing certain chords and then it proceeded to do just that. It is sort of coincidental  or where these guys connected?

RD: I saw Sun Ra do this but I never saw Shirley do anything like this. Sun Ra could do anything.

NOJ: Pretty wild. What was the most impressive thing about Sun Ra?

RD; Highly spiritual, a world of wisdom and just a fantastic musician.
NOJ: Do you think his music was too far out there for most people to accept?

Sonny Blount aka Sun Ra
RD:  No. He did in and out. He did far out and far in.

NOJ: Did Don Shirley, who apparently composed classical pieces, have any influence on you pursuing classical bass?

RD: No he did not have any influence on me, and I don’t know about his composing classical pieces. He approached whatever pieces he was playing, standards, in you might call it a euro-classical manner.I don’t know anything about his composing. I stayed with him for three years. I don’t think he had any influence on my playing, I just got an opportunity to play these bass lines.

NOJ: Which classical Bassist did you most admire and why?

RD: Well the first bassist I heard on a recording was the conductor of the Boston Symphony, his name  was Serge Koussevitzky. Fifteen years after he stopped playing the bass, they asked him to do a recording. He consented to do the recording and I heard about it in a magazine and I heard the recording and he plays three of his own compositions.

NOJ: You have always maintained a dual identity as both a jazz and a classical player. Do you think had the opportunities been more forthcoming you would have preferred to have played Euro based classical music for a profession?

RD: No I would have preferred to play jazz, but I can play both and that is why I’m teaching now because I teach both.

NOJ: It’s pretty heartwarming to hear how well your students appreciate your teaching and mentoring them at the University of Wisconsin where you teach.

RD: Where did you see that?

NOJ: It’s pretty amazing what you can get off the internet if you look, Richard.

RD: I developed a super program for young bassists around the country. The Richard Davis Foundation for Young Bassists.

NOJ: That is pretty great. When you left Don Shirley you went to the University of Sarah Vaughan. How was it different playing for Ms. Vaughan?

RD: I had some intermittent gigs before that. I worked with Charlie Ventura for a while and then the Sauter- Finnegan Band. Just some gigs around New York and then I got the call to work with Sarah Vaughan

NOJ: Now how did you get the gig to work with Sarah?

RD: I don’t quite know, but I think the drummer Roy Haynes might have had something to do with that. I’ve always wanted to ask him that question, but I never remember to ask him, because he used to watch me play with Ahmad Jamal. When he was in Chicago with Sarah Vaughan he would hang out. I remember sitting at the bar with him when he would come out. So I imagine that is my connection with Sarah Vaughan was through him.

NOJ: what was the most impressive thing about Ms Vaughn as a musician that you learned playing with her for five years?

RD: First of all she had a keen sense of harmony. She had a keen sense of improvisational skills on the harmony and she had a piano player , Jimmy Jones, who knew how to play expressive harmony behind her.

NOJ The guitarist Jack Wilkins told me that accompanying a singer is more about dynamics and pace than playing instrumentally with a band. I have seen some film of you playing with Sarah and you look happy as hell. Did you find playing with Vaughan a little restrictive after a while?

RD: Well it’s very true. With her you felt very comfortable and free and relaxed because that is what she looked for. It’s fine until I feel the need to move on.  I just felt eventually it was time to move on to do other things, because I couldn’t do it with her, it wasn’t that kind of a group.

NOJ: Well I have listened to some of your later recordings and you certainly have done some interesting and different things with some cutting edge people. You were in New York and met Eric Dolphy on a subway platform.  He asked you if you were playing Saturday and that was the beginning of a beautiful partnership. What was so special about Eric and why do you think his music was so difficult for the mainstream at the time?

RD: Why it was good for me is that he was playing things that I could hear in my ear. That is what I was looking for when I got off the road with Sarah Vaughan. I was looking for something that could satisfy my urge to play with different chordal structures, different interpretations and he was the answer. He was the answer.

NOJ:  You guys played together on Out to Lunch. In some respects your association with Eric was like a parallel to the late Charlie Haden’s association with Ornette Coleman. He was doing   The Shape of Jazz to Come during that period and you guys were doing Out to Lunch. What was going on with the music at this time? It was like exploding in a different direction.

RD: It sure was. People still ask me about that recording.

NOJ: Not that music needs to be categorized, but what was going on at that time to have moved the music in this direction?  Were the musicians just searching for something different?

RD: Well it could be on parallel with society at that time. Society was looking for something different civil rights, freedom. James Brown was singing a lot of things about “I’m Black and I’m Proud” and this thing was not militant it was about love.

NOJ: It was a little radical.

RD: Some of the people that heard it like the militant Black Panthers heard in a different way.  Eric was all about love. Eric Dolphy was all about love and so was James Brown. Eric was all about love. James Brown was all about love. It was the sixties.
Eric Dolphy
NOJ: In that group you also had Tony Williams on drums, Freddie Hubbard on Trumpet and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes? What was it like to play with these guys especially young Williams?

RD: Like a dream come true.

NOJ: Did everyone look to Eric as a leader or was it a more of cooperative effort?

RD: Well to be honest with you going back fifty years or so it is difficult to go back and see that day, it is not easy.

NOJ: Was Eric a commanding presence?

RD: No he was just like one of the guts. Nothing like I’m the leader or like that you know. It was his music. Most combo situations work as a cooperative situation.

NOJ: You also played with Eric at the Five Spot Residency with Mal Waldron on piano, Booker Ervin on trumpet and Ed Blackwell on drums. How was this group different than the one that recorded for Blue Note?
RD: I don’t even recall Booker Ervin being on that job.

NOJ: You were also an instrumental part of Andrew Hill’s “Point of Departure” recording in 1964 with Eric, Tony Williams, Kenny Dorham and Joe Henderson. How was Hill’s music different from Dolphy’s previous outings?

RD: When I played with him I didn’t really realize that Andrew was a genius at the time, he was just another musician. As a leader Andrew had no leadership ego. He would just pass out the music and you would play it, no whipping you into shape or anything like that.

NOJ: What was different about his approach?

RD: I don’t think he had an approach; he just left you alone to do what you had to do.

NOJ: You went from touring Europe with Sarah Vaughan in 1958 where the music was all standrads  to ten years later veritably leading a  very loose almost wing it session on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album which was an experiment in stream of consciousness lyrics and unstructured music. Did you take what Morrison was doing at the time seriously or did you think it was just another gig?

RD: The A&R people that produced that session were people that I had worked with for a long time. They just told me that they were having somebody coming in from Ireland or Scotland or somewhere and I had to get together a group to do their thing.

NOJ: Were you expected to lead the musicians in the studio?

RD: I might have been expected to get the musicians together, but like I said before no body had to lead these guys. We weren't even introduced to Van Morrison. He came in sat in the booth and started to sing.

NOJ:  You also did some studio work for other very famous pop/rock albums of the ear. You played on important albums by Janis Ian and Laura Nyro, Barbara Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen.  Where you specifically requested to play bass by these artists?

RD: Laura Nyro and Janis Ian must have asked for me. (For Streisand)I was the bass player for arranger/conductor Peter Matz, who arranged her first four or six albums, and he liked my bass. Bruce Springsteen had heard my bass on the Van Morrison album and he said he wanted that bass player on his album ( Davis played bass on “Meeting Across the River” from Springsteen’s Born to Run album with trumpeter Randy Brecker).

NOJ: You also played in symphony orchestras conducted by Gunther Schuller, Igor Stravinsky and Leonard Bernstein to name a few. When you play classical bass is there any room for artistic freedom or is the music rigidly player?

RD: Just for your artistry on the instrument, but you are really interpreting, taking your direction from the conductor. You have a hundred people assembled so you take direction from the conductor who puts you into focus. You have no individuality.

NOJ: You have been an educator at University of Wisconsin in Madison since 1977. What made you leave New York?

RD: I just decided that I wanted to start teaching some younger people what I had learned.

NOJ: How did you find Wisconsin?

RD: Cold.( Laughing)

NOJ: Were they receptive to you as a black educator in a relatively predominantly white state?

RD: Wisconsin has a reputation for being a racial state. I think eventually some people feared me because I was black. They thought I was aloof, but I had to protect myself.. .Wisconsin is very racist.

NOJ: I take it you were a bit of a pioneer there?

RD: What do mean by a pioneer?

NOJ: Somebody that went ahead of other people and blazed the way. I take it by now there is much more diversity and integration in the school system?

RD: It’s still the same, nothing has changed.

NOJ: Well, that’s disheartening.

RD: I’m still working on diversity. I have some allies. I have lots of allies and I have a lot of people who don’t even realize that it exists there.
Educator Professor Davis a U of W
NOJ: Has affirmative action helped Wisconsin integrate more people of color into the educational system?

RD: When you look at the numbers there is still three percent Black and 8 % people of color and I don’t know what they are doing about that.

NOJ: You are an avid horseman your whole life. How does the rhythm of riding relate to the rhythms of music?

RD: Well rhythm, tempo and pacing is part of riding the horse. You have rhythm in the horse, there is tempo in a horse and a certain gait of space and how you are going to cover that space , especially when you are jumping with a horse. I was just watching some old video when you called.

NOJ You have been on over three thousand recordings in almost all genres of music. Is there a particular soft spot in your heart for any particular type of music?

RD: Jazz is closest to my heart.

NOJ: Your last album was in 2008. What album are you most proud of and why?

Rd: I guess the album I am most proud of was Philosophy of the Spiritual ( from 1971). The way that Bill Lee assembled that, he made the arrangements and he always thought I had a specific bow technique and he utilized that and I had a chance to play all those beautiful melodies, I remember "Dear Old Stockholm," Bill saw that and he emphasized that and made the arrangements for that.

NOJ: In the nineteen sixties do you think you took a militant stance against racism?

RD: No I didn't take a militant stance, because militancy defeats the purpose. I didn't take any particular stance, I just thought it was something that I didn't like. I didn't go parading around.

NOJ: In the jazz music world what white musicians did you feel were blind to color?

RD: Benny Goodman was one, Stan Getz was one, Dave Brubeck was one. Of course Duke Ellington was like a social worker.

NOJ:  As an active educator you must be current on the contemporary bass players out there. Does anyone in particular seem to be holding the mantle of jazz bass a little bit higher?

RD: Yeah, Christian McBride, Kenny Davis and I can’t think of anyone else right now, oh Esperanza Spalding.

NOJ: There are more and more women playing bass these days. Besides Esperanza there is Linda Oh, Tal Wilkenfeld,  Iris Ornig and Meshell Ndegeocello to name a few.

RD: That’s good!
Bassist Esperanza Spalding

NOJ:  I am sure you have taught some really incredible female bass players. With the continuously shrinking audiences for both jazz and classical music ,do you think it is going to be able to survive in this age where everything is so quickly changing?

RD: I certainly hope it survives, but who is to know? I don’t know.

NOJ: With such a paucity of venues for upcoming musicians to play at, what is your advice for those musicians who want to make the music their life?

RD: Well my teacher told me to get a degree in education. If the gigs aren't there you can always teach.

To read part one of this interview click here. Part three of this interview will be more on Mr. Davis' views on education and race relations in this country.