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David Witham: A Sideman Steps Out

By Published: April 14, 2008
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More Songs and the Life of a Working Musician

AAJ: "Light and Life" is just piano, bass and kit. It's the piece where I think your rapport with Jay is most evident. This one has an almost Keith Jarrett-like quality, I think.

David Witham / Jay AndersonDW: Yeah, or Paul Bley. Paul's maybe not that sweetly melodic—well, he can be, but his stuff is usually a little drier than that.

AAJ:This one is as much sonata as ballad. It feels like there's a real story in this one.

DW: That's an interesting way to put it. That's an improvisation that I wrote down, and it's inspired by an artist here in San Pedro named Candice Gawne. She's a wonderful light sculptress, and that's really what this piece is primarily about. She's also a great painter, and she does some other stuff too, but she makes these plasma globes that look like undersea life—anemones and jellyfish. She pumps them full of plasma glass, and you can vary the color based on the amount of current that is going through the thing. She's created these amazing undersea worlds of light. So her work is about light and life, and that's where the title came from.

I met her through my association with the Museum of Neon Art. Matt Cohn and I did a profile on her; we went to her loft studio in San Pedro and got to see her stuff. She had it all set up. We went over and interviewed her and I was totally taken with her art.

And I knew I wanted to do a kind of melodic, rubato thing on the record. And I had this thing that I had just played—I really had no idea what I had played, so I had to go back and write the thing down so I could recreate the vibe. And that's where it becomes a kind of sonata, like you say: I had something very ephemeral that happened in the moment and I had to write it down after the fact so I could give a sheet of music to Jay and Scott. Well, Scott really just felt it out, because originally I was going to do it as a duet with Jay alone. But Scott said, "Well, let me play along too." I trusted his judgment.

As far as the thing with Jay goes, that rapport you mentioned—you know, we don't play much these days! I don't think we'd played in ten years before we did this record. It's never an issue; there has been so much spent between us that it's going to be golden. I don't have to worry about him, that's for sure.

I just knew that song was going to be good. The sketch that I had of this improvisation was—well, my manuscript wasn't that easy to read, let's put it that way, and I don't use the electronic programs yet. So I said, "Well, just listen to it," and I played it through. He said, "Okay, okay," and he made a couple marks on his page. And he followed me around. Or I followed him around. And that was the great thing about that one: We had a lot of give-and-take. We didn't quite know the form; I knew we had to play it through once, but didn't know how many times through would be enough. It turned out to be twice through with some improv, then go back to the melody and finish the thing off.

That was the first day of recording, and it was the end of the day. We'd had dinner, and we said, "Okay, let's just do this." And it was a first take. We tried to do it again, and it didn't quite feel the same. It was just old friends.

AAJ: It took you a long time to assemble these musicians for the recording. Any chance of playing this stuff live?

DW: Well, there is always a chance. It might take some serendipity. I can't see playing this stuff without these guys there, that's for sure. Jay gets into town every now and again. It would have to be timed just right—just draw a line in the sand and hope people can make the gig some months down the road. I hope so. A festival gig would be some good incentive. It's hard to get Jay to come to California to do a couple of club gigs [laughing]. It's hard to get a lasso around all these guys.

David Witham AAJ: So what is your week-to-week life like as a musician? I know you're a member of violinist Jeff Gauthier's Goatette; you play with Ernie Watts; you still play with George Benson. How often are you playing professionally?

DW: Every day. The stuff with George—that's been going on for since 1989. George works a little less than he used to, but he still works three or four months out of the year. So that usually comprises some work in the spring and then a long summer tour; he doesn't like to work in the winter.

I've been doing work with a Broadway show here at a theatre called the Pantages at Hollywood and Vine. It's a wonderful place; it was a vaudeville house at the turn of the last century. The first Academy Awards were held there. I'm doing a show called Wicked.

AAJ: Oh, right. A huge success. It's been playing here in Chicago forever.

DW: So that's an extended run. The demand is high. That's my musical reality—eight shows a week to do, and it's a hard. It's a hard show. It's one of the biggest challenges I've ever had as a musician. It's not your typical rhythm-section Broadway musical. I did The Lion King a couple years ago, and it was a different kind of animal, no pun intended. Wicked is, as the guys in the orchestra say, more of an opera thing, or chambery. It's very nimble. It's all rubato, even when the drums are playing. So it's moving all over the place in relation to the dialogue every night. The minute you look away from the conductor, you're sunk!

AAJ: And if it's Saturday, you have to do it again in a few hours?

DW: Yeah. It was really hard! Actually, I would go away and do some shows with George and Al Jarreau, and when I came back, it would actually feel better. Sometimes it's good to take a little break away from something like that—to go play above ground, so to speak.

Selected Discography

David Witham, Spinning the Circle (Cryptogramophone, 2007)
Jeff Gauthier Goatette, One and the Same (Cryptogramophone, 2006)
George Benson, Best of George Benson Live (GRP, 2005)
Jeff Gauthier Goatette, Mask (Cryptogramophone, 2001)
Andy Martin, Leading Off (Resurgent, 1995)
Jay Anderson, Local Color (DMP, 1994)
Jeff Gauthier, Internal Memo (Nine Winds, 1994)
Bill Liston, Bill Liston and Friends (Liston Music, 1993)
Dave Witham, On Line (Witham Section Music, 1988

Photo Credit
Paul Viapiano

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