Calling Gary Davis a bluesman is something of a misnomer and it's a title he likely would have balked at, particularly in his younger years. The blues were but one facet of his far-reaching folk repertoire. Banjo tunes, string band numbers, Tin Pan Alley, and ragtime and gospel all fall under his fertile jurisdiction. In 1935 his obstinacy in the face of the A&R man's insistence that he play the blues rather than the gospel songs of his own choosing led to an early derailing of his recording career. His student Blind Boy Fuller, who proved far more amenable to the record company's demands, started a prolific career in Davis' stead. Fourteen years elapsed before the Reverend made it into the studio again and in the interim he lived a variety of lives, including that of a busker on the streets of Harlem.
This disc sketches the broad dimensions of the songbook he cultivated over the years. What's most unusual is that he renders the tunes in an almost completely instrumental context. Vocal elements only surface as gruff asides on "Please Baby" and the closing "Can't Be Satisfied." Davis' technical facilities as an instrumentalist are noteworthy. The playing and the program itself would challenge many in the context of a Blindfold Test; the guitar tracks in particular could easily be mistaken as the product of a John Fahey or Steven Grossman project.
Davis deconstructs an old military band march on the lengthy "Soldier's Drill," opening with staccato strums and blending a sea shanty feel between skeletal chords that are in more common renditions the province of bugle. He strips away his signature "Candy Man" to bare essentials, but the tune becomes starkly beautiful in its dressed down guise. Hefting a banjo for several numbers, he revels in the harsher side of the instrument, picking out rhythmic clusters of edgy notes on backwoods fare like "Devil's Dream." His granular harmonica makes a sole appearance on the handpicked "Coon Hunt," a tried and true mouth harp standard. Davis may have stymied his initial chances to record in his youth, but he made up for the lapse in his healthy resurgence during the 1960s, and this album of instrumentals ranks among the finest in his latter day oeuvre.
A few interesting side notes. Rudy Van Gelder taped the session and it's fascinating to hear Davis' acoustic strings rendered in the sonically crisp environment of the legendary jazz recording engineer. Also, the original 1964 liner notes penned by AAJ's own Chris Albertson are included in the package.
Prestige on the web: http://www.fantasyjazz.com
Personnel: Gary Davis- guitar, banjo & harmonica. Recorded: March 2, 1964, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.