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Matt Davis: Big Family, Big Picture

Matt Davis: Big Family, Big Picture
Dan Bilawsky By

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There's the broad idea of family. In addition to the one you're born into, you sort of develop [another one] over your life and career, spending time with people on the road or doing long recording projects. You spend so much time with people and you get to know them in such a deep way. The music you experience with them can be so intimate and personal. I think of them as family, in a way.
If there's a defining trait to be found in the value system guiding guitarist Matt Davis and his music, it's most definitely a healthy respect and admiration for kith and kin. A love of community and belonging drives nearly every aspect of this artist's life, including his flagship ensemble, Matt Davis' Aerial Photograph, and it speaks ever so clearly on the aptly named Big Family (Self Produced, 2019). This long-awaited album, visiting music from the past while highlighting tight bonds and relationships, is but a microcosm in reality, encapsulating Davis' passion for people, collective expression, and connective action in a single package. And it's a statement reflecting on the long game endemic in a music career. "The record is a mix of songs I've written over the last 15 years," Davis notes. "The tunes were all written and/or arranged at very different times in my life—while I was living in Philadelphia, New York City, and, for a short time, in Amsterdam. Also before and after getting married and before and after I became a father. Somehow these songs have all stayed with me through these big changes and still feel meaningful and relevant in my life. They feel very personal at this point."

The name Big Family, while autobiographical in nature, holds broader implications for its creator. "[It's] definitely a reference to my own big family growing up, but also the increasing importance I place on connecting more deeply to the people in my life; people who have grown to become like family. [That's] mostly musicians that I've spent a ton of time with, but also teachers, students, and people to whom I've grown close while having a crazy life in music. These relationships have endured, and I wanted to somehow reflect that in this record." Incorporating eighteen of those musicians into his work for the occasion, and blending horns, strings, rhythm, and, occasionally, vocals in the process, Davis built on and refined various signatures at the root of Aerial Photograph's music—cycling motifs, poetic notions, story-driven ideals, an appreciation for breathing room, a strong sense of groove, and lyrical lines, to name a few. In order to better understand how those markers even formed in the first place, it's instructive to delve deeper into the past.

Growing up as part of a bulging brood in Stockton, New Jersey, in the '80s and early '90s, Davis understood the value of family long before he could even walk or talk. "I'm the youngest of seven," he shares, "and I grew up on a farm. My grandmother lived there as well, so there were a lot of people in the house." Music wasn't exactly a primary pursuit in that homestead, but it still made its way through the family. "I have an older brother who plays guitar," Davis explains, "and he was really my first exposure to the instrument." That early influence would inspire the most junior member of the pack to take up guitar before he was even 10 years old. But according to his reminisces, jazz wasn't even on the radar at the time: "Oddly enough, I was listening to Chuck Berry and a lot of oldies. When I entered high school I got a good teacher and got into rock and roll. And then, right around junior year, I started to get exposed to jazz. From there on out it was mostly jazz." By the time senior year was in sight, Davis began to eat, sleep, and breathe music, seriously studying both guitar and flute. "Mornings before school I would wake up and play, if I had a free period at school I'd practice, and after school I'd be playing late into the night," he recalls. At the same time, a steadily evolving diet of music touching on everybody from Ray Charles to Yusef Lateef and Rahsaan Roland Kirk to Joni Mitchell helped to expand Davis' horizons as one of life's key chapters neared its close.

When high school came to an end, Davis chose Temple University in Philadelphia as the next step in his music education. Both the school and the city would come to serve as his classroom in the years that followed. By day Davis would follow the prescribed course of study, but at night and on the weekends he'd hit the town and soak in the scene(s). Dropping into venues like The Painted Bride Art Center, Chris' Jazz Cafe, and Ortlieb's, he began to absorb jazz of various shades and perspectives, connecting with everybody from bassist Tyrone Brown to drummer Mickey Roker to pianist Dave Burrell. An appreciation for both straight-ahead styles and left-of-center ideals fueled his fire while the accessibility factor surrounding these musicians allowed for absorption at a first-person level. "It was a really amazing time," Davis shares, "and I could just go to school and have little odd jobs here and there, but really have a lot of time to work on music, learn, and get the history and the tradition." In some cases, as with Davis' experiences with saxophonist Odean Pope, informal mentorship led to musical relationships on the bandstand: "I ended up playing with Odean. At first it was just that he had this workshop for saxophone players. And when I was a freshman at Temple I would go to these weekly gatherings. Then I started to play for the workshops, and then that sort of evolved into us playing gigs in and around Philly." At the same time, other important connections formed and helped further Davis' artistry. Through a suggestion from saxophonist Bobby Zankel, for example, he began studying with legendary jazz pedagogue Dennis Sandole, who supplemented the more traditional college jazz curriculum through the use of modernistic methodology—"more angular progressions and intervals" that helped expand a musician's tool box.
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