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Anthony Davis Ensemble Live at Dizzy's San Diego, February 20, 2011

Robert Bush By

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Anthony Davis Ensemble
Dizzy's, San Diego
San Diego, CA
February 20, 2011

Composer and pianist Anthony Davis is a modern day renaissance man. Not only is he a master of multiple jazz disciplines, he also has composed several critically acclaimed operas. His classical works have often dealt with controversial subjects, such as Tania, (about Patty Hearst), and Amistad (the famous 1839 slave-ship rebellion). Davis, who has spent the last several years teaching at UCSD's justifiably lauded music department, has diverse interests which have led him to compose one of the landmark recordings of the late 20th Century, Episteme (Gramavision, 1981), a disc that fused a new-music jazz octet with Balinese Gamelan influenced charts, and also to appear as the pianist in the Anthony Braxton quartet, on the album Six Compositions Quartet (Antilles, 1982).

As a jazz pianist, Davis takes elements of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Cecil Taylor, along with the harmonic concept of Art Tatum. There is also a Herbie Hancock influence, particularly in his use of space in ensemble work. He incorporates these inspirations and mixes in the classical influences of Stravinsky, Ligeti and Debussy into his own personal language.

The concert at Dizzy's marked a rare San Diego appearance for the pianist, as well as a celebration of his 60th birthday. For this event he gathered several operatic sopranos, and the remarkable bassist Mark Dresser. As a special treat, he invited two long-time collaborators from New York: the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist JD Parran, and alto saxophonist / electronics master Earl Howard.

The concert began with a feature for his wife, soprano Cynthia Aaronson, on an aria from his opera Tania, titled "Who Will Play Me?" Dresser began things with a tight, swinging bass vamp, and Davis comped with sparse chords, eventually opening up with Monk-like repetitions and bluesy trills. Aaronson's voice was dead on, capturing the tricky melody with grace.

Next, Davis brought out a show-stopping original composition from 1975, "Of Blues and Dreams." It started out as a kind of free rumination, Davis' rumbling piano melding with Dresser's double glissandi. Meanwhile, Howard's alto and Parran's bass clarinet traded mournful sounds that resembled seagulls circling overhead and then began volleying lines to each other that got incrementally longer each time. Davis began injecting long arpeggiated piano flourishes into the mix, adding a joyous component previously missing. Seamlessly, the ensemble morphed into a second written section emphasizing a bluesy swing dynamic, which Dresser highlighted by slapping the downbeats on his bass. That led into a furious free-for-all, which sounded similar to Mingus' experiments in group improvisation.

Emerging from the clamor, Parran took over with a solo filled with Dolphy-esque cries and gurgling multiphonics. Dresser pedaled, offsetting Davis' insistent clusters, then the pianist launched into a powerful, dissonant solo with rapid fire strands of right hand melodic fragments. Turning on a dime, the ensemble drew down to a closing melody that fused blues and spiritual elements.

Ensemble-wise, it was a tough act to follow, and Davis wisely chose that moment for an extended piano feature: "Goddess Of The Water Variations," an aria from his opera Amistad. He alternated left handed bass statements with a evocative rubato introduction, and it wasn't hard to picture something glimmering just below the surface. Gradually the piece grew more agitated with clanging trills and cascading arpeggios, offset by occasional thunderous outbursts of the left hand. It was easy enough to imagine this piece presaging the uprising to come.

Davis introduced the last tune of the first set as a totally improvised free piece. Parran focused on the clarinet and Howard returned on alto, while Dresser began the piece with some of his astonishing "extended-techniques," including one that had both of his hands hammering totally independent lines going in opposite directions. The horns demonstrated a degree of familiarity that was obviously born from experience, because their lines intertwined and dovetailed around each other as if it were all written out.

While Parran eventually drifted into whiplashing Ornette Coleman-ish melody snippets, Howard responded with machine gun blasts of one note trills. The altoist finally broke the tension with a simple bah-dee-dah melody, repeated over and over. Dresser pedaled single notes, double stops and "worried" his G string with a wicked vibrato.

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