Pianist Ron Davis makes no bones about the fact that he’d like to reclaim jazz and its lost audience.
He agrees it’s not a higher art form, it’s not just for adults, and it’s certainly not de rigeur to rock a Brooks Brothers suit and look all serious while playing it.
“Jazz is one of the most exciting, vibrant genres of music,” the classically trained Davis says. “Jazz was the original pop music. It was the edge music and I consider myself lucky to be part of a movement that comes from pop roots and also stretches its traditional boundaries.”
Bridging that gap is easier said than done, but for most of his career, Davis has been doing just that by infusing various elements into his playing. Adventurous and unconventional, he’s all about taking giant steps every time he enters a recording studio.
This is evidenced on his latest disc, Blue Modules.
“Earlier recordings had different influences, to be sure,” he says. “Blue Modulesis a conscious attempt to bring those influences together. In the past, jazz was the main dish, while klezmer and gospel were garnish. On this record, jazz is an equal ingredient along with pop, and funk in main dish, it’s a hearty ragout.”
The disc, his eighth, is an attempt to celebrate jazz music’s spirit of play and improvisation.
“I want people to groove and dance to the music as they did to (Duke) Ellington’s music many years ago. I want to play recognizable tunes, I want to have fun and I want listeners to have fun,” Davis says.
Recognizable tunes like Bill Withers’ Grandma’s Hands, Stevie Wonder’s Living for the City, Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Chile (Slight Return) and yes, even Mahna Mahna. Joining him on this outing is bassist Ross MacIntyre, drummer Roger Travassos, guitarist Donna Grantis — who Prince recently invited to join his band — and Diego Matamoros.
“I wanted to play songs I loved,” Davis says when I ask what inspired him to reinterpret such an intriguing collection of songs. “I wanted to play songs people knew. The Blue Modules project originally began as a Jimi Hendrix project but it evolved into a mix of songs that reflected different moods from the dark (Living for the City) to the light (Mahna Mahna) to the dreamy (I Will) to the spiritual (Patanjali’s Chant), which is the yoga chant that’s part of the Iyengar yoga practice I engage in.”
Davis may have declared war on jazz conservatism and purists but that doesn’t mean he’s thrown improvisation, one of the music’s key elements, to the wind.
“We improvised solos all over the place for this record,” he says. “At the front of songs, at the end of them, in between, all over! In fact, the tune, Blue Modules, is 100 per cent off-the-floor improvisation.”
And the wild mix, Davis feels, will appeal to all of us who live in what he calls “the playlist era.
“We live in a time where a funk tune on your iPod is followed by a rock tune and that’s followed by a jazz tune, and then by some Beethoven. Blue Modules is good music for the playlist era. And I will further this project in Symphronica, where I bring together two established art forms: jazz and classical music.
“It will fuse those traditions plus world, boogaloo and Latin music into what I hope is a new, revitalized energy that helps bring both kinds of music into the present and beyond.”