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
by Joshua van Boxtel
As might be expected, this month’s 80th anniversary of the birth of Glenn Gould (and the 30th anniversary of his death) are not passing unnoticed. A lot of the planned activities fall into the range of what one might conventionally expect — concerts of Gouldian repertoire (such as the gorgeously conceived “Bachanalia” at Koerner Hall, September 24), cd and dvd releases, book launches, academic conferences and the like.
One of these upcoming events, though — the one that inspired this story — is as unconventional as Gould himself: “Dreamers Renegades Visionaries: The Glenn Gould Variations” will take over University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall for two jam-packed days September 22 and 23. With an audience of likely well over 1,000, and an astonishingly diverse lineup of over 50 presentations and performances, all under 20 minutes in length, it’s the kind of perfect cultural storm usually reserved for elite gatherings like TED and ideacity. Except that it’s going to be at a fraction of the cost, especially for students.
So who is to thank for GGV, as participants seem to be calling it?
Ron Davis: Piano-man, and self-styled “recovering lawyer,” Ron Davis, is one of them for sure. In fact he could probably call GGV “his idea” if that was his style (which it isn’t). “I’ve spent decades preparing for this” he says. “As I like to say, Glenn Gould was a big palm print in the wet cement that was my adolescent brain, and that impression has always remained.”
“A good time to get it off your mind, then,” I tease. “I mean, with this great big Gould 80th anniversary ‘brand wagon’ rolling through town.” The lawyer in him flares a bit.
“I would be the first one to criticize anyone who did jump on some kind of ‘brand wagon’,” he says. “I mean, the biggest event immediately after his passing was a piano competition that was won by a woman who is now a world famous pianist, Angela Hewitt. That was the international Bach competition in the name of Glenn Gould. Now, if anyone knows anything about Glenn Gould it’s that he hated competition and he hated performance! He would have despised having his name attached to that.”
So how is this one different?
“I think Glenn would have at least appreciated the fact that we were not doing a ‘homage to Gould’.” he says. “What we’re doing is celebrating the spirit of his work, because although he may have disliked performance and actually said, many times, that audiences are a form of evil, and that performances are a blood sport, on the other hand, the idea of taking technology, the idea of manipulating music with technology, the idea of combining dance and different modes of performance in public and presenting it in new ways, I think he would have liked.”
Consummate pianist Eve Egoyan, who has been invited to perform at the event, in collaboration with artist husband David Rokeby, would surely agree. She will perform parts of a work, Surface Tension, for disklavier and “realtime images.” In it, all the various attributes of the piano trigger visual as well as audible responses, so that the improviser at the keyboard finds herself in an extraordinarily compelling realtime feedback loop. (Google “Egoyan Vimeo Surface Tension”for a look.)
Increasingly as Egoyan’s own career as a performer morphs and evolves, she finds personal resonances in utterances such as the one in one of the early releases for GGV which talks about how Gould was “not only a fearless musician, writer, radio and TV broadcaster with endless curiosity and a devilish sense of humour, he was also a tireless explorer of technology as it applied to the arts and was one of the world’s first true multimedia artists.”
David Daniels: If we have Ron Davis to thank for the lofty idea of GGV, then I suspect that Davis himself probably has David Daniels to thank for grounding it, by giving it a context and purpose that may yet ensure it a permanent place on the cultural calendar: something more than a one-off anniversary party, or just another immersive weekend for the well-heeled cultural cottage set.
“A principal in Daniels Capital Group, the real estate investment company, entrepreneur David Daniels has a successful track record of creating new businesses in a range of industries, from entertainment to retail and design,” says his terse bio.
But he’s also a man with a steadfast artistic mission. And in Davis’s idea for GGV, Daniels was presented with a a clear opportunity to advance that mission. “Ron on his own was thinking about a multimedia event around Glenn Gould,” Daniels says. “I was aready thinking about how to bring about an immersive conference-style event with the power of a TED or ideacity, but accessible for young people, and in general for people who don’t have the $750 a day for those events.” “The younger and the poorer?” I ask. “Let’s call it the young and the young at heart,” he replies.
It was a catalytic meeting of minds. Daniels volunteered himself as executive producer for GGV. (It is already a role he serves to equal effect with Acting Up Stage Company whose groundbreaking Caroline, Or Change was a theatrical highlight of this past December.) With Daniels now on board, Davis could concentrate on finding someone to partner in the daunting artistic task of attracting the kind of participants, and building the artistic team, for the total “Gouldian” event he has been hankering after — the “filmmakers, dancers, choreographers, voices, music makers, DJs, visual artists and music producers, philosophers, futurists, journalists, media mavens, historians, and provocateurs who defy description …”
He knew who to ask and, thankfully, she accepted.
Pia Kleber: Kleber is a professor of comparative literature and drama at University of Toronto. She picks up the story. “Just over two years ago, Ron asked and after thinking about it for a bit I said yes because I like to work with Ron and also because, coming from Europe I always thought Canadians do not always celebrate enough their heroes. He had already talked it through with David Daniels and other people, and formulated that we did not want to do an orthodox GG festivity but something that was inspired by Gould, and he chose three things, which are art, technology and media, and of course this approach was very much my vein because I have to teach also how technology integrates in the arts.”
Like many of the people in this story, Kleber found out there was more to Gould than she thought. “Oh, I knew a lot. You know, in Germany you just know about Gould … [but] I knew basically about Gould the musician and about his music … [As] I did my research and watched all the videos I was amazed. I discovered this visionary, this man who was so much bigger than just his music.”
Kleber, by the way, has taken on the task before of organizing “Thirty Years After” events built around “titans of artistic influence,” as David Daniels described Gould. In 1986 she organized a “Brecht: Thirty Years After” conference/festival which brought together three generations of Brecht scholars, and, with Mirvish involvement, two landmark productions (Caucasian Chalk Circle and Threepenny Opera) by the Berliner Ensemble. As significantly, it created a rallying point for literally dozens of other productions around the city, loosely affiliated to the festival. The key was these other productions didn’t have to be by Brecht to be included; but they had to be able to justify themselves as, in some sense, “Brechtian.”
“Is ‘not Gould but in some way Gouldian’ a similar idea this time?” I ask.
“Yes. Of course, at the time ‘Brecht: Thirty Years After’ was first of all a conference of three generations of Brechtian scholars and then I really wanted to show the breadth and incredible influence that Brecht had, and in many directions … so, absolutely, it was in my mind, and of course the person who is the creative director [of GGV] is Johanna Schall, who is Brecht’s granddaughter.”
Davis, Schall and Kleber have been hard at it for months, each “bringing in their connections and their research.” Kleber’s position as a teacher at U of T has been crucial. “Of course I also involved my students. I have a council of students and we always try to present them the program and to ask them to come with ideas, because this event is really geared towards young people. And if they said, ‘no [an idea] bores us to death, or it’s exciting,’ we looked at it. We did not instantly accept it but we were looking at it.”
Thanks to Davis, Daniels, Kleber and now Schall, GGV moves ever closer to fruition. But beyond their efforts, if it all succeeds, at the heart of it all will be Gould himself who is most to be thanked, calling the event into being with quite astonishing power.
“There was no call for proposals,” Kleber says. “None. I mean, Bob Wilson [Einstein on the Beach] is an old friend of mine … and Atom Egoyan is a friend, so he came up with his installation, and there are a lot of people whom I know personally or Johanna knows personally, or Ron, but many people we just found through research–YouTube was very helpful–and approached them. And it’s the name of Glenn Gould that is opening all the doors. I mean Lang Lang who is such a busy man is flying in to celebrate Glenn Gould; or Todd Machover from MIT who is all over the world said ‘no, it’s Gould. I come.’ It’s wonderful to see this.”
Spinning Gould II: Making the Cover
Once The WholeNote decided to get on board for this story (at a date so far past our usual deadlines that it instantly set off alarm bells all the way to our printing plant in Etobicoke) it was an all or nothing situation.
But even so, it shouldn’t have been hard to figure out that even for a hurriedly arranged photo shoot, calling it for high noon on a blazing hot weekday, on the south side of the CBC Building, was perhaps not the best of ideas I’ve had this past while.
Gould of course didn’t care, eyeing us impassively from his familiar perch on Ruth Abernethy’s iconic sculpture bench in front of the 300-seat concert hall/recording studio in the CBC building that bears his name. But my photographer and art director sure did, as the sun beat down relentlessly on the bench, casting harsh inerasable shadows and causing everyone’s eyes to squint against the glare.
But then again, perhaps it was Gould who, just at the right moment got the sun to slide in behind the great towering bulb of the CN Tower, immediately across the street, giving us 15 minutes of the blessed shade we needed to complete the shoot.
And it was definitely in a collegially Gouldian frame of mind that we all trooped off to the cafeteria in the CBC building atrium afterwards, to rehydrate and let a few words fly. Certainly it was in the spirit of the upcoming event.
We made a bit of a motley crew: Pia Kleber and Ron Davis, whom readers have already met in the story; our “cover boys” Billy Iannaci and Andrew Testa (more about them in a moment); choreographer/director Clarence Ford who arrived too late for the photo shoot, but stayed anyway, revealing off the record a wonderful idea for his performance that I promised not to spoil; and rounding out the picture, Lorne Tulk, Gould’s recording engineer who, as the story has it, and as Tulk will corroborate, was the closest thing Gould had to a brother, and was the only one of our gathering one with a direct connection to the man behind the ever-evolving myth.
Iannaci and Testa will perform at GGV as two members of a threesome, with DJ Sam Pereira (who spins under the name LRS, and is off backpacking in India so couldn’t join us for the shoot, but he and I communicated later). Their piece is called “Gould’s DNA” and, especially in the context of the fact that they have never worked with each other before, it’s interesting to hear them describe the piece they are working on. “What makes us powerful and creative is that we each bring unique talents to the table,” says Pereira. “Billy is a talented producer (dissecting and breaking down Gould’s music into Midi). Andrew is a talented musician (drummer and composer). I am a DJ/conductor keeping our performance on time, while providing contemporary elements of the DJ (mixing, scratching and EQ-ing). We are still working on our performance. I’d say the most ‘Gouldian’ thing about it will be that we’re composing three different songs that will be themed around his ideas on music and technology.”
Pereira cheerfully confesses to knowing next to nothing about Gould before the project, “a generation thing, you know.” But his bio also states that he has performed all over the world and currently maintains the widest syndicated live-to-air broadcast in Canada, with weekly listenership that ranges between 500,000 and 1,000,000. So the “generation thing” cuts two ways.
Iannaci began his musical career as a singer/songwriter, and has since gravitated much more strongly to the production side. Testa works both as a drummer and on the production/engineering side. Both are evidently getting a huge kick out of the process they find themselves in, in preparing for the event, not least in the evident camaraderie they are developing with Tulk. “This whole thing,” Testa says, “has opened our ears to classical music and has challenged us to work on something a bit out of our element and we plan to dissect artists like Gould in future projects.”
“Our other goal,” Iannaci adds “is to have people know more about modern composition technology, the things that most likely Gould himself would have been doing if the technology was available to him–what we call the “chopping” of audio … it would be the splicing of audio, and we’re going to use that to kind of create completely new compositions. Also, the other thing that we want to be highlighting is the program Melodyne, which is going to be able to read Glenn’s performances, and we’ll be able to apply those performances to modern instruments, as well as add our own little compositional flavours into it … so for instance we’ve been able to take Gould’s playing and apply it to 8-bit (8-bit is like the Nintendo sounds) — just creative things like that.”
Tulk is smiling as they speak. “I am just sort of laughing at what they were saying, about how they were able to do what they were able to accomplish … it’s a magnificent program, Melodyne. That’s what Glenn would appreciate, the creativity, the freedom … you’re free to create as you wish. I always loved the phrase that Glenn had more than 88 keys in him. He just had so … there were so many other aspects of him other than the piano.”
“Maybe he’d never have touched a piano again if he’d had these tools,” I say. “What do you think? Do you think he’d have been swept away by all of this?”
“No. No, no” is Lorne’s reply. His mind was too active for that. His mind would have gone with the times. He was a digital man with an analog skin, yeah, no question. And no, I don’t think he would have gotten swept away, he would have been part of the era. He was very quick at filling in the blanks.”
Known as one of Canada’s most fluent jazz pianist/composers, Ron Davis steps outside the box with this eclectic and very entertaining new album. He and his ace band of A-list locals put a refreshing spin on tunes from the diverse likes of Hendrix, Elvis, the Beatles and Sesame Street (“Mahna Mahna”). Yours truly especially loves the offbeat yet tuneful take on XTC classic “Making Plans For Nigel”, while the funky original “Pawpwalk” is another highlight.
Blue Modules puts a refreshing jazzy spin on a truly eclectic collection of songs from the pop and rock genres. Check this out for a diverse grouping of artists covered: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis and Sesame Street. Davis contributes some fine originals too, including ‘Pawpwalk’ The brilliant XTC hit ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ is given a delightful twist here. ‘Highly recommended’.
Blue Modules is a jazzy and funky sonic ride ‘a soulful vibe propelled by Davis’ soaring piano solo’ ‘entertaining, thought-provoking Jazz’ ‘Ron Davis and his group showed the audience that with Jazz, there are no boundaries as to where music can goal’ ‘a great night with a great band’.
‘Boasting a truly eclectic mix of songs you might not be expecting to find on a jazz release, he and his simpatico adventurers apply what can only be called Ron Davis’ signature spirit of improvisation. With Blue Modules, Davis underlines his skills as a phenomenal instrumentalist, a composer and an arranger. He jumps from grand piano to Fender Rhodes, celeste and back again honouring the true progression of his sense of what jazz can be. At the same time, he reinforces his fan base ‘those who know him for his swing-based, post-bop approach to the genre of jazz piano by taking a few risks in the name of good fun’¦ That Blue Modules is a progressive step forward is best summed up by the title track ‘a solid original that features a heartfelt stew of sounds that steer clear of labeling, allowing the groove to chart its own course and strike a nerve. This smooth, funky and highly elastic track best defines Davis’ spirited sense of where he wants the music to take you. Indeed, taking something so sacrosanct as a Beatles song most notably and aptly-titled, ‘You Can’t Do That’, speaks volumes to this newfound direction the reinvention of pop on his terms. Chances are good you’ll dig it as hard as Davis and his chosen musicians choose to dish it out.’
Your first listen for this week belongs to pianist, composer Ron Davis and his brand new album Blue Modules.
Its fun. Its possesses an energy, its innovative. Davis puts some life into some unique already well established songs and adds an original or two to make it even more personal. This is Davis’s 8th recording and he will bring it to Chalkers Jazz Club for three Sundays starting next January the 20th.
Our specific choice is his version of XTC’S Making Plans for Nigel. Any one who is a fan of XTC is a friend of ours.
Ron Davis, the new album belongs on the jazzfm91 First Listen list, its called Blue Modules…
Blue Modules, the eighth album by pianist-composer Ron Davis is, in the words of Ornette Coleman, Something Else!!!! For the past 10 years, Davis has been recording a blend of styles. At the keyboard, Davis is a known stride player, in the tradition of James P. Johnson, Fats Waller and Art Tatum. In his recordings, he used to like running that strictly jazz vibe through arrangements of classical pieces (‘Vaughn Williams’ ‘Rhosymedre’), or classic standards like Hoagy Charmichael’s ‘The Nearness of You’ (slowed down to come across like Chopin), or Chronos Quartet-ish classical Klezmer jazz sounds ramped up-tempo and coming out like Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The blend always included a generous sprinkling of Davis’ original, high-textured compositions. What held these albums together was the free and unfettered spirit of Davis-the-jazz improviser having every kind of fun but always keeping track.
Blue Modules is funky. It’s less of a blend, more what Davis likes to call ‘a seismic shift.’ Blue Modules features Davis going from eclectic to electric and elastic, extending his pianistic fingerings to Fender Rhodes, keyboards, and for goodness sakes’ celeste. And his setlist is very something else!!!with tunes like XTC’s ‘Making Plans for Nigel,’ the invocation of Elvis by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman’s ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ Bill Wither’s ‘Grandma’s Hands’, a couple of Stevie Wonder tunes, a Jimi Hendrix, and a pair of Lennon & McCartneys. This is a list you might expect at a live concert that lines up Medeski, Martin, and Wood with John Scofield, or String Cheese Incident. If you want a touch of funky Euro-Muppet-pop there’s Piero Umiliani’s ‘Mahna Mahna,’ and for those prone (or supine) to yogic chanting, there is ‘Patanjali’s Chant’ featuring Donna Grantis on guitar, who is also featured on Davis’ own smooth and funky ‘Pawpwalk.’
Will you like Blue Modules? I played it in the car for the lead guitar-player of Caution Jam, one of Canada’s better jam-bands, and he really liked it. So I tested it on my system during three successive dinner parties, and everybody liked it. What else can I say? I keep it in the changer of my car system in a batch that currently includes the Preludes of Nicholas Kapustin, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues, and Klezmer Karma by Roby Lakatos, just in case I want a dose of the latest Ron Davis.
A fine fine musical trek. I like Blue Modules very much.
Ron Davis has eight releases under his belt but he’s anything but satisfied. He’s on a mission to shake up the stereotype of the typical jazz audience by tackling his repertoire differently in an effort to regain the enthusiasm that the genre deserves. Taking three Sundays in a row at North York’s Chalkers’ Pub to do so was simply a part of his plan. When Blues Modules was released a few weeks ago, critic Peter Goddard implied that Davis might be his own worse enemy. With the exception of the opening instrumental, Goddard suggested Davis to be guilty of the same ho-hum ‘light funk’ and ‘easy listening’ and ‘cocktail lounge treatments’ that Davis had originally rallied against with this release. Indeed, what Davis has tried to do ‘ succeeded in technicolour ‘ in this recent run of live shows. Davis, a somewhat chameleonic player who conjures images of a wide range of idols, dependent upon the muse. Yet, the real magic lies in the chemistry and musical makeup of Davis’ varied keyboard directions in conjunction with three outstanding players in Ross MacIntyre (bass), Kevin Barrett and guest drummer Tim Shaw. Together this simpatico crew play as if competing only with themselves, surrendering to the song, remaining loyal to the piano’s lead yet challenging it. All Davis can do is break into a huge smile as he plunges headlong into each and every excursion. Expert musicians and soloists all, these four glue together in their journey like nothing you’d hear in any lounge I’ve been to. From ‘Roger’s Rumble’ a too-short original teasing a heartfelt stew of groove that signals what is to follow to surprises like an elastic re-treading of ‘Making Plans For Nigel’ the lone hit by these Brit groundbreakers, themselves locked between genres, giving birth to something clever of their own.
A different lineup than the album, which featured Roger Travassos on drums/percussion, Donna Grantis on guitar (Prince’s newest protégé) and Diego Matamoros’ words on a lone track, this quartet smokes and crackles across a wild menagerie of oblique angles and least-suspected covers to create something entirely of their own making. Mission accomplished, Mr. Davis. From the effervescent gumbo that is ‘Roger’s Rumble’ to a collection of covers ranging from music by Bill Withers and Jimi Hendrix; XTC to Stevie Wonder; ‘Viva Las Vegas’ to the Muppets’ theme. Although the potential for lounge could be surmised here, that’s not at all what emerges from the other end of the listener’s experience.
Spiritual travelers in the name of exploratory improvisation, Davis and his elastic-fingered, 5-stringed bassist, MacIntyre, are joined at the hip while Barrett probes new ground covering a spectrum of influences from Burrell to Metheny, with a splash of George Benson and Warren Haynes for added interest. Sims sits back somewhat, rhythmically flawless, positioned for the attack on a moment’s notice, as MacIntyre, Barrett and Davis momentarily spar, all the while laying down complementary journeys of sophisticated sonic pleasure expanding upon the central theme of each cover, launching it into uncharted turf. Davis clearly embraces all music and his co-conspirators begin with his every lead before growing variations of their own.
Those seeking fresh colour combinations and inventive textures in their jazz might plot a course for a live Davis show but be prepared to ingest plenty of stylistic ground which, despite the protests of some, lends the concept of eclecticism a truly positive and progressive spin.
Such was this enchanted evening, which shared the stage with young turk, Andrew Testa, sitting in on drums for ‘Sunny’ and Daniela Nardi’s guest appearance covering an Italian folk tune.