John Daversa: Bursting Out of LA
Seen in the hallways at California State University in Northridge, a neighborhood of Los Angeles, where he teaches big band arranging, jazz history and other music courses, John Daversa might be seen with his goatee, and dense, dark and curly hair, parted in the middle, and correctly sense he might be involved in one of the arts programs.
What students at the university might not know is that Daversa is a man of immense compositional and arranging talents, who can also blow trumpet like the bell is about to fly off it. Like other LA-based musicians, he's done the film score gigs and television jobs. He even traveled Europe for a time as musical director for a Holiday On Ice troupe. But this cat is a jazz guy through and through and leads extraordinarily exciting bands, large and small, in Southern California.
It's coming time when that reputation is going to get more widespread, if good taste hasn't disappeared completely.
Daversa comes from a musical family. His father played trumpet with bandleader Stan Kenton. His mother plays piano and flute, and has years of experience with the band backing singer Andy Williams. So music was a direction that made itself known at an early age.
"In high school it was solidified that I wouldn't be happy doing anything else," Daversa says. "In that way, certain people might view the arts as a difficult way to achieve financial success. It's really just a mindset. It took me a long time to realize that too . In high school, I realized if I did anything else, I would just want to be playing music all the time. That's not fair to anybody. Especially not myself."
So he went headlong into it; good news for the arts. Daversa's latest recording, Artful JoyBob Mintzer and singer Gretchen Parlato are guests. The band sounds large. The tunes are exciting, from ethereal ("Hara Angelina") and funky ("C'Mon Robby Marshall"), to swinging ("Rhythm Changes"), dreamy ("Players Only"), and reminiscent of trumpeter Miles Davis' blues circa 1980s ("Flirty Girl").
It's consistently interesting and expertly executed. The players with whom Daversa has shared a long association are, by turns, outstanding, grooving, wailing and subtle when need be. The soloists are also outstanding, particularly saxophonist Robby Marshall and keyboardist Tommy King. And Daversa's trumpetand sometimes the electric EVI (Electric Valve Instrument)is superb. The recording came on the heels of 2011's Junk Wagon (BFM Jazz), an equally exciting album done with his Progressive Big Band. That band also gets some steady work in the LA area. Armed with Daversa's writing and arranging, it plays music from a wide range of genres and it always works. It is one strong aggregation and the disk was probably the best big band recording of 2011.
"With the big band, I love it because we can have these lengthy improvisational moments, but you always know, because of the arrangement and the composition, where you're going to land. It gives some structure to the chaos. But with the small band, we have no idea sometimes where we're going to land. A lot of the directions on that particular recording are the first time we ever did that. It's different every time. That's the fun of what that [small] group is," he says. That fun carries over to the audience.
Artful Joy is the third disk under his own name, though he has been part of some cooperative band recordings. The previous two were by the big band. He's also played on records by pop singers Joe Cocker and Fiona Apple, jazz group the Yellowjackets and songwriter Burt Bacharach.
Both the small and large bands had a regular gig at Los Angeles' Baked Potato club, where the small group has enjoyed a longer tenure than the big band. Daversa says the time had come to document the smaller group with a recording, "and start taking that music to the people. Both the big band and small band have the same personalities, the same directions in the music. There's just a lot more space for communication and improvisation with the small group because there's so much more flexibility when we're in the middle of these forms."
Daversa says of the CD, "I'm thrilled with the way it turned out. If we had recorded it the following week, it would have been a completely different record. It's always in a state of evolution. What we're doing now is the next iteration of what we were a year ago. There is a lot of gospel influence on those particular tunes. I had done a session for [keyboardist/singer] Andrae Crouch not too long before that. One of the tracks they played for usnot one of the things I played on, another track they were working onwas the most joyful, celebratory, happy sounding music. I was really inspired and I wrote a couple tunes after that. So a lot of the music has that undertone to it."
He's been playing with the same musicians for some time, so when writing for the group, he keeps their styles and personalities in mind.
" It's a very dedicated aggregation and I just love those particular personalities and how they all fit together," Daversa says. "I know how Robby Marshall is going to phrase something, or even what his sound and spirit is going to feel like over a particular solo section. Or Gene Coy [drums]. I was joking with him last year. At this point, I don't think I'd have a strong quartet without adding him to it. He interprets everything just the way I would want it to be played. When I say that, it can be completely different from what I envisioned, but when he plays it, it's 'Oh. Of Course. That's exactly right.' We've all been playing together for six, seven, maybe eight years now. It's a family and we all know each other well. We know how to push each other. The writing and the composition is my way of pushing them and gelling us all together with our different personalities and strengths."
As far as writing, at which he excels, the process has changed since his younger, more footloose days, up to now.
"I used to have a regimented structure, creating time for myself. When I was a single guy, I'd get up at 6 o'clock in the morning and write until about noon every day. All kinds of different stuff. That was my time to write. After that, I'd practice my trumpet, then I'd go play my gigs. That was my day," he recalls. "I miss those days. They were so wonderfully structured. But now, I'm working at the University. I'm a dad. All that kind of stuff. A lot of the writing gets done while I'm driving in the car. You grab those extra moments between things. I'll jot down and idea and it continues to be formulated, over a few days, in your head. Thankfully, I've developed enough skill to be able to compose on the fly like that. By the time I'm actually writing it down, it's already written. Just by necessity. I wouldn't choose to do it that way. A lot of times I'll just be driving. I'll sing something in the phone and I'll come back to it later and write it down."
As far as influences, there are many. Being the son of two musicians has its own set of circumstances. But Daversa's ears have always been open to what's around him. "There's so much music that we all hear on a regular basis," he notes. "That's one of the wonderful things about being a professor. My students will come and show me different kinds of musics that are happening that I wouldn't have been aware of. You get to hear this stuff and analyze it with them. It keeps me a little bit more current. Then all of my prior interests, from Ray Charles to Beethoven to Frank Sinatra to Miles to The Police. I love a lot of different kinds of music. That's what we all do. We take the little bits of music that we really like then put it through our own filter. And this is what you come up with. It's ever-evolving. It never stops. I love it."
As a kid growing up, Daversa also paid attention to the recording his parents owned. His mother had the music of Beethoven, as well as singers Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson. On the piano, she'd play Mozart and Liszt. "Dad was playing Miles Davis and, more importantly, talking about Miles Davis. His friends would talk about the music that was important to them when they would come over and visit. Those conversations were readily available. Not to mention Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire and whatever was playing on the stereo. It was a lot to absorb. I loved it. My ears were wide open. It was a good dynamic."
His musical start involved piano and voice. "Learning to read vocally was such a great thing. Because there are no keys to push down. No valves to push down. You just have to know what the pitch is. Once I started playing trumpet later, I knew what it was supposed to sound like from the vocal stuff. It made things a lot more seamless," he says. He played a wee bit of clarinet and trombone before coming around to the trumpet, an instrument he avoided for a time because his father played it. Its sound captivated him and that was it.
His influences over time included Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Chet Baker and Don Cherry. "The moment I heard [saxophonist] Ornette Coleman's record The Shape of Jazz to Come (Atlantic, 1959), that was it. I laughed out loud in joy of understanding when I heard that record. A lot of it was Don Cherry playing that pocket trumpet." He also listened to guitar players and, in the '80s, fusion music from the likes of Davis, saxophonist Michael Brecker, Weather Report and the Yellowjackets.
"It was a dream come true when I got to play on a Yellowjackets album [ Timeline (Mack Avenue, 2011)," he adds. "That first record that Bob Mintzer played on, called Dreamhouse (Warner Brothers, 1995), when he joined the Yellowjackets, I must have listened to it a thousand times."
In high school, Daversa got into the trumpet and jazz more seriously. Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, California, where his family lived at the time, had an outstanding jazz program, and the students in it were active before and after school, involving themselves in the music. When his family moved to the LA area, he went to Hamilton Academy of Music, "which was a music magnet," he recalls. "They'd bring in a lot of those kids that were interested in the arts. So I got to be with a lot of likeminded high school kids and share that growth together. Then I went to UCLA. Ironically, I went to UCLA because they did not have a jazz program. I knew that I was going to keep playing and getting jazz on my own. I wanted to study classical composition because I didn't have that formal training. So I got a degree in classical composition at UCLA. Then I took a break from school for a while. I got burned out. So I was playing and teaching and ended up starting the big band."
That included going to Europe with the Ice show, a three-year gig that was eye-opening for Daversa. "One of the reasons I took that gig in Europe was because I was kind of saturated with teaching. I was doing so much teaching. I was struggling to make a living, and even though I was doing a lot of wonderful projects it was still a rat race. So I went out there and one of the first things that I missed was teaching. I missed the students. The music they bring to me, and talking about music and analyzing it. When I came back to LA, I knew I wanted to get my graduate degree, so I went to CalArts and got a master's degree in jazz studies. I finished off with a doctorate over at USC in jazz studies."
Since coming back to the LA area, Daversa has immersed himself in many projects, along with his teaching duties. He says the LA jazz scene is strong, even if its pocket is relatively small. "There are so many great players. The jazz scene is small. It's fairly substantial compared to a lot of other cities in the world, but compared to New York, it's small. A lot more commercially oriented. It was a place where I knew the players. I had players around me that I loved playing with. I was trying to create my own music, so that fulfilled me.
"There are so many incredible players everywhere." Daversa continues. "When I was touring in Europe, we went to every small and big city and I'd always meet a couple people from every city that were crazy good. Amazing players. We don't know about them because they hang out in those little pockets. There are players everywhere. LA is an interesting place because the lay of the land is so spread out and the way that the film and TV industry is, everyone's doing that stuff. It's hard to get a real creative scene, a real community. But it does exist. There's a club here called the Blue Whale that's starting to create that family, that community. Granted, it's one club, but it's really become the place where everybody wants to play and everybody goes to hang out. With incredible music. So there are these hubs. I think this one will be around for awhile, and then there will be another one."
He adds, "You really create your own environment. You can create so many opportunities for yourself no matter what the area of expertise is. I struggled when I was younger. All my examples, my icons, were starving artists, so that's what I was. But then I realized it doesn't have to be that way."
With some outstanding CDs in his bag, Daversa is trying to get more exposure for both his groups. "I'd like to see that stretch beyond LA this year. I'm going to try and get some things going in northern California, in San Diego, so we can manage to transport everybody to and from. That's going to be the next project: a big band record. I'm starting to write some new material. I've got a bunch of stuff that's already, in a way, finished in my head right now. I just have to have the space to write it down. That's what I'm going to be working toward the first half of the year, getting that new record to a place where it's part of us and we can just go throw down."
Financially it's hard to work with the big band, as all leaders of large ensembles know. But it doesn't deter him. "I'm so blessed. The players in this band, it's also a family. We all find ways to take care of one another and keep this music alive. It's important to all of us. Like everywhere else, they are working musicians, playing TV and movies and theater and that kind of stuff during the day. Then we all get together and play the music that's really important to us. It keeps our soul on the other side. That's why it keeps going." it's following in LA is continuing to grow. The new big band disk will be recorded toward the end of the summer.
As for the small band with the large sound, Daversa will bring it to northern California in March and Germany in April. He's trying to shore up dates in Europe and Japan in the summer.
"Our goal is to go beyond LA. We're starting to do that this year," Daversa explains. "'m going to try and get a New York thing happening by the summer or the beginning of next year, so we can start collaborating with a few folks. We're going to try and get the small band out to the world, out to the people. That's a big priority. It's paramount, for our future as a band, that we have these goals and these experiences; that we start to grow together as we start to tour a little bit. That's the direction for this next year and beyond. To grow with the music. It's always about the music. Keep moving, always with the goal of making great music and making people happy.
"It's been a little steam engine, picking up momentum as we go along. It's getting stronger and stronger. We've been working hard at it, so a lot of that good energy. The rewards are starting to come now," says Daversa. Meanwhile, he plays in different jazz groups around in LA and occasionally travels with them, like last year, when he went to Japan with Bob Mintzer's group. He tosses in movie and TV dates as well. "You just try and juggle it all. Do the things that seem like they're going to be fun. If it's not going to be fun, then I won't do it."
"In order for me to do this," says Daversa, "I am going to have to create my own path, just like everybody. It's a full life I'm living right now. It's real fun. Really fun."
Joe Cocker, Fire It Up (Sony, 2013)
John Daversa, Artful Joy (BFM, 2012)
Regina Spektor, What We Saw From the Cheap Seats (Sire/Wea, 2012)
John Daversa, Junk Wagon (BFM, 2011)
Yellowjackets, Timeline (Mack Avenue, 2011)
Andrae Crouch, The Journey (Riverphlo, 2011)
Westland Trio, Westland (Self Produced, 2010)
John Daversa Big Band, Live at Catalina's (Self Produced, 2009)
Justin Morrell, The Music of Steely Dan (Sonic Frenzy, 2000)
Jeff Babko, Misfits of Silence (Rhombus Records, 1998)
Top Photo: TJ Tesh