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Artist Profiles

A Tribute to Brian Davison

By Published: December 20, 2008
Davison had the technical chops of Mitch Mitchell
Mitch Mitchell
Mitch Mitchell
1947 - 2008
drums
—one of his greatest features was incredible right—left hand independence (I once saw him do a superb left hand roll while his right hand worked the rest of the kit) and the discipline and ability to construct drum solos as just as logical and coherent as anything Ginger Baker
Ginger Baker
Ginger Baker
b.1939
drums
did, although much faster. According to Ian Wallace on the Elephant Talk website, he was as critical to Emerson as Mitchell was to Hendrix. He was also the first rock drummer to integrate Chinese gongs into his drum kit—a humble affair with a snare, tom, floor tom, and bass drum, one hi—hat cymbal and two splash cymbals—but he managed to produce a great deal from that sparsely populated set-up.

Although Carl Palmer is a fine drummer with superlative technique, listening to his versions of "America" and "Rondo" after hearing Davison's originals (including the breakneck "Rondo '69") was always disappointing, and always seemed rather leaden. An unfortunate tendency developed in drumming after John Bonham's popularity with Led Zeppelin—drummers all felt they needed to hammer the beat, rather than add subtle accents, a la Davison. The major difference is probably their influences—Palmer's main influence was Buddy Rich, the great jazz drummer with whom Palmer established a friendship. Rich's style was fast and flashy, with a great deal of emphasis on fast snare breaks. Davison's influences were Art Blakey, Max Roach, Jack DeJohnette and other technically proficient drummers who focused on polyrhythmic exploration—use of the whole kit to drive the piece, and a multileveled approach to time keeping, that encouraged exploration of the whole kit. Palmer could also be counted on to produce a drum solo every night, but Davison needed to feel the time was right to do one, and would not if he did not feel it was suitable. He was also a superb improviser and would often change set pieces they performed every night, (like "She Belongs to Me" on Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It) in order to improve the pieces. He maintains a steady tempo for most of this song, but also holds back and interjects rhythmic breaks, building tension with Jackson (and to a lesser extent, Emerson), until the tension abruptly stops, bringing the song back to the lyrics. It is a masterful structure that would have collapsed in the hands of a lesser drummer, as a major part of his contribution to the Nice was in adding drama to the pieces. This can also be heard in the way he builds up to the end of "America" with increasing loud rolls that end in an explosion at the end of the piece, or in his dramatic but sensitive drumming on the trio version of "Movement 3 from Pathetique Symphony" on The Nice's posthumous LP Elegy. He was also one of the best time keepers in rock, giving Emerson (and earlier, O'List) ample room to stretch out, while keeping the group moving forward.

After the Nice broke up, Davison stayed active, first of all in his own group, Every Which Way, which had a bit of a free jazz direction, then after disappointing financial results. as a fill-in drummer for Wolfgang Dauner, then in session work, as part of Lee Jackson's Jackson Heights, then in the spectacular Refugee, with Patrick Moraz and Lee Jackson. Davison's work His best work from this period can be heard on the song "All in Time" on the Every Which Way album, and the entire Refugee album.

Refugee showed signs of being a breakthrough group, but Moraz was invited to join Yes, so that spelled the end of that. His drumming on the two Refugee albums (one recently released from live tapes) is extraordinary, funky as Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
Billy Cobham
b.1944
drums
, but with more freedom, a style he pioneered on "Brandenburger" in 1968. They are well worth finding.

After Refugee, he joined Gong for awhile (and was ranked by Mike Howlett as being a superb "top kit" player, but one who had lost his confidence). Davison fell on hard times in the late 1970's to the late 1980's, but rebounded through a series of teaching jobs, and even made it back to playing with the Nice again in 2002.

He was a major talent, an unsung innovator, and a spectacular (and tasteful) percussionist. He will be sorely missed.


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