With a career spanning two continents before he was 20, arrangements that received awards from both Downbeat (2021) and the American Society of Music Arrangers and Composers (2021) while still a student, and compositions described as “on a scale with Everglades by Terence Blanchard,” (Gary Lowe, WUNH), composer, bandleader, and saxophonist Simeon Nathanael Davis makes a profound compositional debut with Of Narratives & Nocturnes
. Featuring eight original through-composed works written programmatically to elements of mythology, religion, and visual art and accompanied with original poetic prose and illustrations by Vancouver-based designer Studio Céleste, Of Narratives & Nocturnes
is a holistic storytelling experience that transcends genre norms and immerses listeners in the worlds Davis creates.
For Davis, music stretches far beyond mere listening. More than groove, harmony, and melody, Davis sees music as a vehicle for expression, whether in abstraction, linear plot, or emotive release. Of Narratives & Nocturnes
stands as a bold testament to this compositional perspective, drawing on elements of Davis’s background in classical and folk violin, experience as a jazz saxophonist, and 17 years living in and engaging with the music and cultures of South Africa. Rather than categorizing his music by genre, Davis unifies his works through distinct programmatic concepts with the focus on storytelling. “Don’t think of each member of this group as just another soloist, but hear them and their instrument as the role they play in the narrative,” Davis says. “Who’s the villain? Who’s the hero? And who’s the one distracting you so the rest of us can subtly build the world around you?”
The title is indicative of both the album’s concept and compositional vision. Of Narratives & Nocturnes
is at its core an anthology: a series of tales either following a linear plot or evoking deep emotion. In other words, the album itself is a collection of narratives and nocturnes, brought to life by Davis’s band, the Simeon Davis Group. Compositionally, each of the eight pieces draws on sources outside music as the creative impetus. By mapping emotions, locations and characters onto specific themes and timbres, Davis wordlessly paints the experiences of his characters as they engage, ensnare, and overcome one another.
Davis’s distinctive character-driven compositional style prominently influences his use of form as a writing technique. “Most stories don’t cyclically repeat themselves,” Davis says. “Why, then, should music that was written to evoke those stories do so?” The majority of the music on the album is completely through-composed, using a carefully structured blend of improvised solos, premeditated backgrounds, and constantly developing harmony to carry the plot of each piece forward. “Form has the capacity to be a deeply emotive compositional device,” Davis says. “Learning from composers like Bob Brookmeyer
who delayed solos to the last possible moment, Maria Schneider
who uses solos as transformative elements, and Felix Mendelssohn who restructured sonatas to serve the music, we can change form from being an arbitrary construct of tradition into a powerful storytelling tool.”
The programmatic flair on Of Narratives & Nocturnes
continues ceaselessly throughout. The album opens with “The Diver,” a piece inspired by the journal entries of Davis’s friend, a marine archaeologist. “The Diver” utilizes mixed meters to evoke the ebb and flow of the ocean, shimmering timbres to mimic mottled sunlight from the surface, and improvised solos by keyboardist Holly Holt and bassist Jake Chaffee to capture the experiences of exploration and fear as the diver’s lights suddenly go out. Davis’s character-driven style is embodied most evidently on “Eden.” Drawing on the Judeo-Christian creation narrative, “Eden” utilizes four main themes to represent the four main players: the voice of God (wurlitzer chords), Adam (male vocal melody), Eve (the earthy, funky groove), and the Serpent (the electric guitar). These themes not only interact, but transform each other through counterpoint, harmony, solos, and backgrounds. Davis’s South African influence is showcased prominently on both “Seven Come Wednesday” and “Ingoma Yoxolo.” The former utilizes a ghoema groove and instrumentation typical of Cape Jazz, a localized subgenre of South African jazz, as the piece changes from soulful to energetic. The latter, whose title translates from isiXhosa as “Peace Song,” transitions from layered ostinatos to a feel rooted firmly in South African jazz tradition, drawing influence from pianists Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Nduduzo Makhathini.
The interdisciplinary collaboration on Of Narratives & Nocturnes
from its inception is one of its distinct hallmarks. Many of the works on the album draw on visual and literary inspiration, such as “A Quiet Night in Pandemonium,” influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Mike Mignola’s depictions of this epic poem. With this in mind, Davis saw that to complete the storytelling experience, visual and poetic elements must be present. Enter Vancouver-based designer Heather MacLeod of Studio Céleste, the illustrator for the album. “Heather has been a dream to work with,” Davis says. “She took my concepts and sketches and made something truly evocative that complements the arc of these pieces.” The final tie binding the album is Davis’s original poetry. Framed emotively, his stanzas immerse readers in the experiences of the tracks while subtly alluding to the linear plot. Of Narratives & Nocturnes
features a large cast, more akin to a theater troupe than a traditional ensemble. “We’re musical thespians,” Davis says, “and with each piece, we erect new scenery and put on different costumes to play these new characters.” At the core of the ensemble is the steadfast rhythm section, comprising Jake Chaffee (bass), Josh Parker (drum set), Holly Holt (keyboards), and Mario Wellmann (electric guitar). Davis praises the rhythm section for their ability to interact and create musical dialogue. “This is music that’s living, moving, and taking people on a journey. When it comes to a solo, that developmental energy can’t simply die off,” Davis says. “We’re not creating a glorified backing track. The rhythm section talks and engages with the soloist, to collectively tell the story. The rhythm section needs to fight me.” Beyond the rhythm section, the atypical elements of Davis’s orchestration enter. With Davis on saxophones and flute, the horn section consists of Jonathan Shier (trumpet, flugelhorn) with wordless vocals provided by Tyler Thomas and Rachel Azbell. This instrumentation is expanded, with guest appearances by Maximo Santana (trombone), Jess Meador (violin), Aramis Fernandez (congas), and Alex Hand (acoustic and electric guitars), presenting a vast timbral palette with which Davis paints masterfully.
With Of Narratives & Nocturnes
, Davis reaches past the realms of mere musicianship and takes hold of the essence of pure artistry. Through his incorporation of interdisciplinary media, Davis demonstrates a visionary level of creativity that serves not only the music but the grander goals for which music was written to achieve. “Humans as a species are the only creatures capable of spinning stories. We always have and we always will, whether to entertain, to understand, or to express,” Davis says. “So here we stand, armed with sounds and silence as we seek to articulate our humanity through this series of narratives and nocturnes.” Of Narratives & Nocturnes
releases on Next Level, an imprint of Outside in Music, on June 24th, 2022.