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Alana Davis: Can You Hear Me Now?

Mike Brannon By

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There has to be a point where you have to have a little integrity about what you're doing.
Alana Davis is an enigma. Instantly timeless, powerful, necessary, somehow at once earthy and ethereal, tribal and post-modern; Aretha meets Norah Jones. But art is subjective, elusive, sometimes an acquired taste, and needs to be expressed, communicated and felt; sent and received. And for sure, you'll feel it on first listen.

As talented and original as she is, it's easy to Imagine the fast talking, transplanted Brooklynite serving any number of causes, besides her own musical calling, from those of the Earth to human rights. Those who don't know her or are aware of only her cover of the Ani DiFranco anthem, "32 Flavors"—eloquently expressing on an enriched heritage—are truly MIA. Along with an eclectic, maturing pop sensibility, she owes her formidable jazz pedigree to both her father Walter Davis Jr. who worked with Miles Davis (no relation), Charlie parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins and Donald Byrd and jazz chanteuse mother. What it all comes down to—the osmosis, growth, pain and release—is that Alana is an original in the making with much to say and soul to burn. She laughs easily, listens Intently, thinks quickly—often expressing via anecdotes—has a great sense of humor about life and clearly loves life. Growing up, Davis spent her time writing poetry, taking up guitar, songwriting and contending with racial and civil rights issues in school and beyond, which have only served to mold her aesthetics and enduring positive, survivor's nature into a voyage of self-discovery and a drive for connection and acceptance for all.

Her first album, Blame It on Me dared to deliver more hit material than contemporary pop albums are supposed to and became Time magazine's #3 CD of the year for '97. She then went on to join of the HORDE tour and later performed her version of CSN's "Carry On" for the 120 million watching the 2003 Superbowl (www.alanadavis.com for clips). Since then, she's had label issues that delayed "Fortune Cookies" and caused Davis to rethink distribution, label dependence and to create Tigress (Tigress/Telarc) records to distribute the just released Surrender Dorothy. Among the events on the album are a languid, moving rendition of Blue Oyster Cult's hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper" which sets the tone for another very personal journey. It's one of those tunes that not only bears repetition, but demands it. And she has this talent with both her own material and the selected covers she does: defines and redefines them and truly makes them hers. It's easy to imagine her doing this with almost any vehicle once you've heard "Reaper" and "Marley's "Nice Time" back to back. The well-enunciated artist is well supported by a dream team of NY's top sessionists comprised of guitarist Adam Rogers (with Norah Jones, Mike Brecker, Chris Potter), bassist Jack Daley (with Lenny Kravitz, Joss Stone, Everlast) and drummer Nir Z (with John Mayer, Genesis, Billy Squier).

Surrender Dorothy debuted at #7 on I-tunes, which has made Alana an exclusive track artist and she's also joined their celebrity playlist. A pre-tour, showcase gig supporting the new release took place February 24th at NYC's Canal Room as the tour comes together. If after hearing this incredibly sensual, smoky, sultry, soulful force and you don't want to take both her and the music home, you may want to check your pulse. You'll soon be hearing a lot more of this artist, and it's about time. Hey Alana, welcome back.

All About Jazz: So you're out in SoCal.?

Alana Davis: Yeah. Oh, It's beautiful. I'm In Venice today and I'm looking at the beach.

AAJ: Cool. I was out there In the Summer; it's beautiful. So are you on tour right now?

AD: No, not yet. I've got to put together a band and then, yeah. Then I'm hittin' the road and never comin' back.

AAJ: Never coming back (laughs). So, you're not using your recording band.

AD: No, I don't think so. Here and there where I can, but they stay pretty much busy all the time. So getting them to record is one thing but getting them to tour is kind of hard. I've got to think of everything on a different level. When I'm on tour I'm not a diva but I like to learn things, you know (laughs)? And these guys... and the music and the outline are coming from me. I kind of just want them to do their thing when I work with those guys. But hopefully, though, maybe a showcase here or there.

AAJ: Do you expect that when you'll get a new band that they'll just hit it right from the start or do you find it takes time to get it together?

AD: Oh yeah, you definitely get tighter and tighter the longer you go. I kind of wish I'd already put it together and now here I am trying to be a record company, too. So as much as I'd love to out all my energy into being a musician I've got to kind of switch back and forth, you know? But yeah, once we're on the road we'll get tighter and tighter as that's our Input, that's our focus. Once you know the arrangements you can forget the arrangements (laughs). So I think it'll be cool.

AAJ: Exactly. So do you have anyone yet?

AD: No, I really don't. Honestly, I think this time I want to do it a little differently. This may not be the way that It ends up going down but I'm thinking I might just go to a music school and pick up a couple of young, pliable recruits. Maybe someone really open-minded, very talented jazz cats who would love to just see where we end up. I think that'd be fun, because you know the record's the record and then you really want It to be fun, you want to play, you want to have a conversation. And that's what I'm thinking, that's what my dad always did (pianist Walter Davis Jr.) and a lot of people that I respect did; not their peers but people you could mold and watch them do their thing later on.

AAJ: You were talking about your dad. What was that like growing up with a famous jazz pianist for a father? Did you see him much?

AD: Yeah, I did. We didn't really live together he was too busy planting his seeds here and there and traveling. He was always gone. But it was jazz; "famous jazz" is oxymoronic unless you're Dizzy or Wynton or one of those cats. But for the times that he became a front man—there were only a handful of those times—for that, unfortunately, he never became famous. He wrote all this music that's really cool, original stuff that's not the typical be-bop to play with his band or whatever. He did stuff that he could play with his band but he did his own stuff. He played here and there and, you know, you've got to have a place to work it out. He did some stuff that I thought was really special In the early 80's—similar to what I'm hoping I get to do—with Tom Barney (bass), Kenny Washington (drums). That was it: trio. And it was The Walter Davis Trio, I think it was called 'Nighthawk' and it was the phattest. They were playing their asses off. It was great, it sort of fits under the heading of be-bop, but kind of not really. It's definitely jazz but with its own thing. I wished he'd become famous, that would've been great, but I think he was really doing his own thing. But he was a professional sideman for which I don't think he ever got many accolades. I think he'd be very honored to know that he'd popped up in the encyclopedia now.

AAJ: Well, he certainly deserves it.

AD: He was one of the last of those, that crew, before it all passed away. It was kind of almost the end of an era, so I'm glad at least they did an album. Thanks for saying that. I wish that more people knew of him. I still do shows and people go, "you're Miles" daughter, right? (laughs). And I go, "no, it's Walter Davis". But, hey, it's cool (laughs).

AAJ: So what's happened since Blame It on Me came out. It must've turned your whole life around to say the least. And then the amount of time it took between the first and second records, too.

AD: (laughs). Well, that was not what I wanted to do. We arm wrestled a lot. I would turn in songs and I just went from song to song to song and It was almost like I just never gave them (the label) the one that that they wanted. And it got really tiring. I guess they always came back with the phrase: "It's great, but it's not commercial". So I said, "you said 'its great' so I think I did my job". They hired me to write good songs and hired musician's to take a journey and I thought that artist development was part of it (laughs) but, silly me, right? It was insane, but I had never sought out a deal, I was just green when I got in there. It just became a learning process, big time. That's kind of what I look at that whole period as. I'm glad that I have music out there but I kind of feel like my life Is now, beginning again (laughs), because finally I understand part of it. I feel like I'm truly part of it. So yeah, it's frustrating that it took so long but maybe that's what it was supposed to be. I can't really go and change any of that, right?

AAJ: No, absolutely not, except just learn from it.

AD: Exactly, and I think I did. I think I was the beneficiary of a lot of really great promotion that they did for me, as a pop musician. The joke is that pop is not really what I listen to but I keep waiting for the day for pop to be really great music again. I just like stuff that's good.

AAJ: I mean there certainly is good pop music, great pop music.

AD: Yeah! There used to be. I think there was a time when pop music used to be like the thing. It wasn't pop first then became great. Its like, how did It become a style? It's bizarre. I don't know how it happened.

AAJ: Exactly, I know. There was a time when jazz was pop music.

AD: Right. I know. It's funny, when anything becomes pop or becomes that dialect it loses what was so great about it in the first place and why it got popular.

AAJ: I think some people have the theory that it kind of phased of with be-bop when people stopped dancing as much as they did (to swing). When the groove became less apparent and other things took precedence like the soloing and stretching out and the tempos went through the roof and musicianship took precedence and it became more for musicians and listeners.

AD: Mm. Right, yeah. I think it was more ego-less art.

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