Alex Davis should not have worried when he told his son Ron, “All you care about is music, why can’t you get a real job?” The now acclaimed pianist and composer makes a living off of music, and with eight noteworthy albums behind him, he has firmly established himself as an innovative force within the world of jazz.
Davis’s talented fingers and shifting, indefinable style become clear when he hops onto the piano seat opposite bass player Mike Downes at an on-campus event put on by Musicians@Ryerson and Hillel@Ryerson. He takes on pieces from Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues to Bal u Grubego Joska (Polish for “Party at Fat Joe’s”), an eponymous song about his late grandfather, to an improvised jazz version of You Are My Sunshine.
“It’s a border-free, open-playlist type of influence,” Davis says when asked about his multi-genre playing, which originated from stride and swing roots. “Eclectic? Sure. I would just call it open-minded. I appeal to different tastes.”
Davis is quick to say that his music does not qualify as “jazz purism,” and he openly embraces criticism of his work. “You’re not making a statement if there isn’t room to disagree with the statement,” he says. “When you’re making music, there has to be room for rejection in your work, otherwise it’s too bland.”
It is little bits of wisdom like these that Davis shares with the group of students and guests gathered before him at the evening performance. “Let me tell you, the music that you’re getting from whatever source you’re getting it from â?¦ that music is as highly processed as a McDonald’s hamburger. One of the things about this music is it’s handmade.”
Davis is a small man with a big presence. Upbeat and energetic, his amusing digressions bubble with exaggerated impersonations and droll self-mockery. “I married a musician and she thought she was marrying a lawyer!” he jokes. “Thank you for putting up with it,” he tells an old schoolmate after she congratulates him on his performance, at the end of the night.
Light-hearted and loquacious in person, at the piano Davis is straight-faced and focused. His nuanced, freestyle improvisation emits liveliness and breeziness, combining the fragile and strident in a quick succession of notes.
Music wasn’t always the way of life for Davis. Despite playing piano since age eight and studying at the Royal Conservatory of Music beneath Darwyn Aitken (a student of classical master David Saperton and jazz legend Oscar Peterson), Davis decided to pursue a career in law. Two years later, he returned to the University of Toronto to get his PhD in French and teach, as an assistant French professor.
Davis’ fervour for professional music was reignited just 16 years ago, when saxophone player Doug Banwell nudged him into a jam session that soon transitioned into regular gigs at local cafÃ©s. It took four years for Davis to remove “lawyer” from his email signature.
Since then, the piano has ousted the legal robes and conjugation charts. Davis has toured worldwide with various collaborators and accrued a great deal of praise to his name, with Jazz.FM calling him “one of the great minds in jazz” and CFRB “one of Canada’s A-List pianists.”
In his newly released album Blue Modules (displaying a cover image that Davis calls his “FU cover”), covers like Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas and Jimi Hendrix’s Voodoo Child (Slight Return) are interspersed with originals. Symphronica, his next album, set for release in late 2013, is a jazz-symphony fusion that bridges the divide between classical and jazz.
Davis has also found a way to shrink the gap between music and charity. For eight years, he co-produced Jazz for Herbie, a benefit for the Sick Kids Hospital Foundation, and he served as secretary of The Glenn Gould Foundation for many years.
These days, he also performs regularly for various charities and sits on the advisory boards of Reaching Out Through Music and the Jazz Performance and Education Centre, as well as serving on the board of Opera Five. “There are so many challenges in music that somehow I think we can identify with some of the charitable causes,” he said. “There’s that natural symbiosis.”
Though fulfilled with his music career, Davis can’t help but to wander back to his late father’s misgivings. “My father was always like, “You’re a lawyer, you’re a French professor and now you do just piano?”, he jokes with a hint of earnestness.