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A Tribute to Brian Davison


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Brian Davison, a drummer of no small stature, passed away April 15, 2008.

Why should you care?

Because Davison was one of the most criminally underestimated and unfairly unrecognized musicians to emerge from the UK in the late 1960's.

Davison was best known as the drummer with the Nice, Keith Emerson's group before Emerson formed the super group Emerson, Lake and Palmer. As may be expected, the fact that Davison was replaced by another drummer did little for his reputation, and I can recall seeing many articles circulating immediately after ELP formed, and for many years later, about Emerson dumping his erstwhile colleagues in the Nice for better players.

Well, first of all, it would have been an example of the untrue becoming true by repetition—a common trait in 20th and 21st century journalism. Secondly, it was an unfair evaluation of two fine players whose main fault was that they were not as commercially palatable as their replacements. Although I feel that Jackson was unfairly maligned as well, I will focus on Davison as his recent death highlights the problem of events being reported by musically illiterate journalists.

Davison started his professional career with a group called the Mark Leeman Five. When Leeman died in an unfortunate car accident, Davison held a variety of temporary jobs until he was hired by the Attack, the original group of future Nice guitarist Davy O'List. The Nice was formed as a backing band for soul singer, P.P. Arnold ("The First Cut is the Deepest") when she relocated to the UK. Initially, the Nice backed Arnold, but also did their own set. Shortly after, the Nice separated from Ms. Arnold and were slated to record independently—but the drummer in the group, Ian Hague, was alleged to be a bit moody (and was reputed to have a drug problem) and was let go. Davison auditioned and got the job. As a matter of fact, Davison himself had reportedly seen the group a few months before and sensed that the group needed him then (see Martyn Hanson's Hanging on to a Dream).

After the group was asked to appear on P.P. Arnold's Immediate album, which did not go well according to Hanson's book, they were able to start touring independently. The Nice garnered praise in the UK. They were ranked as being comparable to Cream and Hendrix, broke club records, appeared on continental and English television, and were critically praised. Indeed, the only obstacle to their success was an unsupportive record label—Immediate Records, run by former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, was notorious for allegedly failing to pay its artists—and this necessitated endless touring on the part of the band, meaning they could not do film soundtracks or other special projects. This put a strain on the band. Sadly, as they were on the brink of a commercial breakthrough in the U.S., Emerson announced he was disbanding the group.

The major reason for dissolving the group was the lack of commercial success of the group, especially in the U.S.

Now, back to Davison's role in the group... Davison himself was a master drummer, one of the three or four best rock drummers I ever saw live. Stylistically, he drew inspiration from jazz drummers (Art Blakey and Jack DeJohnette in particular) and was the first link between rock drummers like Keith Moon and more sophisticated intellectual drummers in the progressive rock vein like Bill Bruford.

Davison's style could be eruptive, as in pieces like "Daddy, Where Did I Come From?" in which he sounds like Keith Moon, with a little more polish, to "America," in which he does a polished roll followed by a fast as lightning snare break, to the 1969 Fillmore recording of "Country Pie" in which, to quote a late drummer friend of mine, "He sounds like he has three hands!" Other examples of the talent that he brought to the Nice were, his speed and flexibility in the 2nd and 5th movements of the Five Bridges Suite, in which he provided a darting hi—hat introduction, followed by polyrhythmic support that I have never heard any other rock drummer attempt, his light and jazzy touch on pieces like "Little Arabella" on Ars Longa Vita Brevis and the Nice's cover of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas". He was also one of the first rock drummers to attempt 5/4 time ("Azrael, Angel of Death" the b—side of the Nice's first single, and "Azrael Revisited"), and handled tricky rhythmic changes easily ("One of Those People"). He could also change styles easily, and often did so. All of side two of Ars Longa Vita Brevis is a panorama of styles, and "For Example" on Everything as Nice as Mother Makes It goes from style to style in a great display of versatility. Also, the drumming on the sole Refugee solo album is extraordinary—Davison is tight, speedy, and fully up—to—date with the increasing trends in music at the time for more disciplined rhythms that occurred in the mid—1970's.

Davison had the technical chops of Mitch Mitchell—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 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, 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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