by Joshua van Boxtel
At first, I thought with the blast of orchestration, that this was going to be some lush, Martin Dennyexotica type excursion. But, I was wrong.
Ron Davis teases the ears with the introduction and then puts the music in high gear. Simple piano chords hook the listener at the onset as the orchestra builds on a compelling melody — then, Davis starts tossing out notes in a Dave Brubeck captivating piano style. The orchestra is what gives Davis a distinctively different edge. It’s not small combo — it’s almost like someone asked themselves what wouldMantovani or Percy Faith sound like if their music was jazzier, edgier or challenging?
The shame of Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra, back in the 50’s & 60’s is that many of his musicians were accomplished jazz-big band musicians and they seldom had a chance to just let loose. That’s not an issue here with Ron Davis’ orchestra. Not in the least. The approach has a nice provocative tint.
“D’Hora,” (“The Hour”) — is a deeply affecting opening number and the possibilities begin to take shape. A little funkier is “Gruvmuv” – with, get this: grungy-jazz guitar. Yeah…it’s retro in style at first but, it has many modern day whips in it’s lounge-café jazz guitar temper – there’s Herbie Hancock spice tossed into the mix. Kevin Barrettis the guitarist and it’s wicked at times. Ron slips in on an electric piano – Rhodes and while I am not a big fan of this keyboard “sound” (I enjoy the tonalities from a grand piano or upright more), Ron Davis does seem to understand how to make the animal squeal. It’s delightful. And Ron — knows what he is doing. Knows what he wants and needs. There’s a real cool groove going on in this title. Drums have a steady thud by Roger Travassos and Mike Downes’ bass has a nice bottom. Accomplished? You bet.
Melodic? That would be “Fugue & Variations on Gaga and Poker Face,” – real nice creative song title.
Again, the band reaches back and takes a retro style and polishes it into a modern day foray. Arranged by Jason Nett this builds wonderfully and the addition of two individual cellos adds a lot of color and variation. The violins – for a jazz record mixing classical, chamber music, string-quartet brushings similar in flavor to the Brodsky Quartet — well, it’s quite an undertaking.
The mesh of various voices in the instrumentation sends this music searing. It’s easy to see a jazz lover enjoy it as well as a classical fan. This mission was accomplished. Excellently recorded, the separation between my speakers is exciting. This sounds like an old music renewed, invigorated and tasty. At the five-minute mark the drums kick in with a bellowing bass and that comprised of the multiple violins — is exhilarating.
This is like a jam almost – the soloing, and ensemble playing is deeply affecting. A great track. Featured below.
“Danza Daniela,” is pensive. (I am assuming the title translates to“The Dance of Daniela”) — It’s more symphonic with strings, the bass is plucked in a warm café lounge jazz style, gentle, brisk brush strokes on the drums adds a nice touch. Ron Davis’ piano is reminiscent of the famed 60’s solo pianist Roger Williams (“Born Free,” “Somewhere in Time,” & “Edelweiss”) and a little of the respectable duo Ferrante & Teicher (“Midnight Cowboy”).This has a very well balanced approach in the performance and it’s a light arrangement. The old duo F&T also utilized to great effect the drama of strings – the same way Ron Davis does here.
While “Born Free,” by Williams is about as far from jazz as you can imagine, the strong arrangement and gut-wrenching production is what Ron Davis exemplifies in his own work. Tight, well-arranged pieces framed at times as middle-of-the-road, but sweetened or made stronger by jazz ingredients. This is not Percy Faith territory — “A Summer Place,” — but, I’ll bet Ron could do it – and jazz it up at the same time. What Ron does encapsulate is the same euro-jazzy acoustics of the well-arranged approach German composer-conductorBert Kaempfert used to pull from his fine orchestra: sample —“Afrikaan Beat.” The opening with its melodic, infectious acoustic guitar before the trumpet, trombone and strings of his magnificent orchestra kicks in. Brilliant for its time. The arrangement to this tune was dynamic for the era it was released. As was many others by this fine composer – who played a role in the discovery of The Beatles. (This is the man who wrote “That Happy Feeling,” – great trumpet-trombone work on this one. “Strangers in the Night,” “Danke Schoen,” “Wooden Heart,” and many other memorable 60’s melodies. Bert was no light weight).
The album “Pocket Symphronica,” is Ron Davis’ tenth album. What sets the album apart from many of the other artists is Ron’s ability to seamlessly blend jazz and classical flavors into one cohesive piece. I was never certain if what I found appealing was the jazz I liked or the classical under current that is soothing. You know — it’s like eating dark chocolate with potato chips or salty pretzels. It’s that good.
But no matter, after all, it’s your mind, your heart and the little hairs on your arm that respond to the notes. Trust your body.
Much of this music is also like wine tasting. There are so many flavors in one sip that can be detected. You may taste a woody flavor, a fruity one, then a few moments later you taste the richer potent grape taste. Davis is not afraid to toss in many flavors that can be “heard”throughout his varied pieces. There is no boredom anywhere in this collection that I can detect.
“Presto,” is a short piece with fiery dueling violins that is neither classical, bluegrass or pop. It’s infused with Ron’s rapid piano runs and each instrument “answers” the other in a frantic argument, conversation or debate. But, it’s all musical.
Then it segues into “Blues 54,” with its thud of drums, unified strings in a progressive rock type enticing web. The fluid electric piano sound Ron projects here is dreamy, ethereal, other-worldly. This is not jazz-fusion but, I could just imagine what kind of trumpet solo Miles Davis would have laid down over this piece. Instead,Andrew Downing’s cello bellows deep like a kraken beneath the sea. The little instrumentations scattered throughout the music is like what Weather Report, and the German band Passport used to do with their pieces back in the 70’s when this music had a righteous audience.
“Chassel Siddur Pesach,” opens with a George Meanwell cello in the tradition of the type of melody often found earlier on Paul Winter Consort albums, particularly “Common Ground.” This is a beautiful melody, rendered proficiently by Meanwell. Ron Davis’ light piano frames the tune with strong bowing by the violinist – too numerous to mention and I am not certain who took the solo here. Beautiful though. Ron’s piano comes in two-minutes into the tune, that I could hear. The tone is haunting as it’s surrounded by mallet drums and more melodic violin bowing. This music is played sincerely, religiously and spiritually — that it conjures goose bumps. And…it doesn’t out stay its welcome.
“Pentuptimism,” – piano / violin on a wavelength with a dense organ. Shades of Chick Corea & Return to Forever – and it all comes together not as an imitation, but a continuation of that fine work. Ron Davis’ work on this is magnetic. I never tire of the incessant violin sound – as produced here it’s always a welcome decoration to the overall showcase. This is a clear case of a well-thought out piece that will survive multiple listens by anyone who enjoys a stimulating performance.
“Love Song,” is a longer than average piece composed and arranged by Jason Nett. This has a nice build to it and Ron Davis’ crescendo like piano mixed a little below the surface is effective. The strings are silky, assisted by a heavy bass bottom, and a crystalline acoustic guitar, and piano that has a soothing tone and a melody that’s fascinating — the way instrumental passages by King Crimson once were. That progressive band often had little interludes and instrumentation between their intricate progressive rock pieces. But those little pieces, often with cellos, cornets, cor angelis and other unorthodox instruments were always melodies that ignited each piece between every vinyl groove. Ron Davis does this throughout his work. The instruments play off one another like children in a playground. Some rougher than others, some faster than others, some pensive, some aggressive. It’s sculptured music and the display reaches deep into a listener’s emotions. This is such a satisfying, appealing piece.
“Jaggy Dance,” – I was waiting for something like this to bounce out. Because as I listened to this album I was reminded of a piano piece that I was saying to myself — Ron Davis should tackle. Obviously, he has his own style nailed down. This song, however, is like Beethoven meets Frank Zappa meets the Lounge Lizards. It has a hypnotic, playful effect. Almost something you would use in a children’s show, but also useful in a Luis Bunuel movie. Wow…that’s a stretch. It has that Mad Hatter crazy going on between the piano, bass and percussion. Something the English bandStackridge has done — “Happy In the Lord.”
The tune I had in mind that Ron should tackle – just for the fun of it — is the piano heavy jazz-calypso tune “Almost Good,” (on YouTube).
Written and performed by David Seville back in the 60’s it was the flipside of one of his Chipmunks hits. Yes, you heard right – Chipmunks. David Seville was actually a jazz-enthusiast named Ross Bagdasarian. And this little instrumental, easy as it is, is a fiery little creative jazz tune that can stick to your mind like Kelsey’s burgers stick to your rib cage. After each piano run the pianist exclaims “hey, that’s almost good…” Ron Davis would have a blast performing this live. The piano sound is also quite haunting.
As for “Jaggy Dance,” this is fun to listen to. Nice that Ron has a sense of humor that’s put to good use. You can almost see in cartoon fashion — an obese woman wearing an apron walking back and forth in the kitchen as this tune plays — waiting for the mouse to come out of its hole to steal her cheese.
The album concludes with a samba like “Jeanamora,” with a niceGeorge Meanwell cello pluck. The strings support its deep notes and for an album that was solely instrumentals – it’s a strong performance. Nothing boring. Nothing bombastic or pretentious. This last tune was arranged by Tania Gill and composed by Ron Davis. The drums on all the tunes are consistently marvelous with solid sound bouncing off the skins. The City of Toronto chose this song for its Music311 program that celebrated Toronto’s music and musicians.That’s an honor.
I mentioned some musicians by name but overall Ron Davis’ band was comprised of no fewer than eleven proficient musicians. The album was produced by Dennis Patterson, Ron Davis, Mike Downes, Roger Travassos and Kevin Barrett. The CD package is a beautiful tri-fold die-cut heavy card graphic with good pictures, lots of information and credit. All the music was recorded in Toronto. The CD package was designed by Mamone & Partners.
Ron Davis has ten previous albums worth exploring including 2013’s “Blue Modules,” – something a little more experimental and post-modern jazz.
His wife is the Canadian-Italian jazz singer Daniela Nardi who has also been reviewed in these pages.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review / commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / July 2016
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