This month brings to the city two performances by pianist and composer Anthony Davis, who has been living in Southern California for the last decade. Prior to his immigration to the West Coast, Davis was active in New York and his return brings an improvisational voice sorely missed in the city where he made his home for so many years.
Anthony Davis was born in 1951 in Paterson, NJ, attended Yale University, graduating in 1975. Davis' father Charles Davis arrived at Yale shortly after Anthony to chair the newly formed African-American Studies Department. In the early '70s, New Haven was home not only to students at Yale, but also to many of the musicians who played a major role in creative music in the '80s, including Gerry Hemingway, Mark Dresser, Ray Anderson and Wadada Leo Smith. In a recent phone conversation, Anthony shared some anecdotes from this period: "George Lewis and I were freshmen together at Yale in 1969. There was a program called 'Conservatory Without Walls' which brought great musicians to town. This gave us the chance to meet people like Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie...George Lewis and I had a group called Advent and I also had a trio with Ed Blackwell and Mark Helias that played weekly at the Foundry Cafe in New Haven." The close proximity these musicians enjoyed in New Haven was essential for the development of these artists' work. "When people move to New York, they get swept away by everything that's going on there. Being in New Haven gave us all a chance to work together and develop our own stuff, away from what was already happening in New York."
Davis has always presented a distinguished musical vocabulary that takes inspiration from many different disciplines, defying easy categorization. His improvising projects often use plenty of through-notated material and his operas and orchestral music often incorporate improvisation. As a composer his work is just as likely to be compared to Ellington as to Steve Reich or Bela Bartok. His chamber music, operas and orchestral works all bear the influence of Javanese Gamelan and various threads of African-American music, in addition to European and American avant-garde notated music. The same is true of his jazz compositions, which function as careful distillations of the same influences into a format that more directly addresses the performers' improvisational abilities.
A look at Davis' performance credits shows a long period from 1974 until the mid '90s during which time he appeared as a sideman on numerous records with the likes of Smith, Anthony Braxton, David Murray, Barry Altschul and Bobby Previte. But perhaps most notable during this period would be Davis' work with flutist James Newton; the trio with cellist Abdul Wadud made three recordings: I've Known Rivers and Trio Volumes 1 and 2, all on Gramavision. This group's unique instrumentation underscored its multifaceted approach, where contemporary chamber music and jazz improvisation coexisted as one performance practice. Far beyond simply being a blend of jazz and classical music, the group benefited from all three musicians using their dual backgrounds to approach both the improvisation and the composition from a place that can only be reached by having mastered both traditions. "We had all studied Messiaen, Takemitsu and Stravinsky. They had always been a part of the New Music we studied, as well as jazz composersparticularly Ellington, Strayhorn and Mingus. We played in a way where the improvisations came out of the compositions and the compositions came out of our improvisations. We were exploring a gray area. We were fascinated by what Mingus could do with the blues: the ever-expanding form. We were interested in dealing with expanding harmonic structures and expanding forms."
Davis' activities as a pianist have been more intermittent in the last decade or so, as his attentions have turned increasingly toward his work as a composer. His 1988 orchestral work "Notes From The Underground" premiered at Carnegie Hall, performed by the American Composer's Orchestra. 1988 also saw the premiere of his best-known work as a composer, his opera X: The Life And Times Of Malcolm X. This work premiered at the New York City Opera and subsequently was released as a two-CD set by Gramavision, a recording nominated for a Grammy in 1992.
Since this time, Davis found he was presented with more frequent opportunities to translate his practical experience gained as an improvising musician to larger formats like orchestral and operatic music. He has composed two operas since X. Amistad was premiered in Chicago in 1997 and Wakonda's Dream was premiered in Omaha in 2007. Other notable recent works include "Maps (Violin Concerto)" and "Violin Sonata," the latter commissioned by Carnegie Hall in honor of its Centennial. In April of 2007 Davis received a Guggenheim Fellowshipa prestigious award in recognition of his multifaceted creative output.