Tuesday, December 11, 2012

In Walked Walter Davis, Jr.

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“A PROBLEM that frequently confronts jazz musicians is the basic one of what to play. Jazz has always consisted on what is, for the most part, a borrowed repertoire. The first jazz bands played marches and quadrilles, and today you hear mostly popular and show tunes. Fortunately, there are certain musicians with the gift for composition, who are able to supply their own material, thereby making a musical statement completely their own, rather than borrowing from a storehouse of music they might find less suitable
Of course, every jazz musician is a composer in a sense; in fact, some people define a jazz solo as spontaneous composition. Some solos have been turned into compositions by other hands — Lester Young and Charlie Parker have both received this tribute, and a phrase of Dizzy Gillespie's, for instance, was reworked by Tadd Dameron into the lovely If You Could See Me Now. And the world of jazz history is full of so-called "originals," most of them vanishing with the same speed it took to write them. Occasionally, though, one of these "originals" achieves some degree of permanence, and some of them have passed into the basic repertoire — Milt Jackson's "Bags' Groove," for example.

But beyond this, there are a few men who can rightly be called jazz composers, and, perhaps not so surprisingly, four of the most important of them have been pianists: Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and John Lewis. In speaking of any of these men, you can always get a good argument going about which aspect of their careers are most important — their music, their groups, or their piano playing.

To take this very brief discussion right down to the present, what amounts to a new school of jazz composition is to be found in the person of Horace Silver. The conjunction of Silver and the Jazz Messengers, and the music Silver has written for that and subsequent groups, is probably the single greatest impetus to the "funky" school. Some examples of this work have achieved enormous popularity, such as Senor Blues on Blue Note 1539, and other instances are scattered liberally throughout the Blue Note catalogue, but the one record that may have been the start of it all is Blue Note 1518, which includes such near-standards as The Preacher.

And here, on this album, is a young man, another pianist, composing in the same tradition — Walter Davis Jr. On his first Blue Note album, Jackie McLean's New Soil (BLP 4013) he contributed three tunes, notably the bouncing, humorous Greasy. On this, his first album as a leader, he contributed all the music. There is a difference between composition and the mere sketching out of riffs, and Walter Davis Jr. has gone a long way toward achieving this distinction. It is practically a parlor game in some circles to put the newest "original" on the phonograph and then figure out what song it really is — what standard has had its harmony lifted to provide the basis. This music will afford little satisfaction to players of that game. They are truly compositions, varied in mood, rhythm, and harmony.

One of the things that Walter Davis Jr. has kept in mind on this album is one of the best lessons of the great Duke Ellington, a lesson so simple it is often overlooked — write for the men who are going to play your music. As I mentioned, Davis is in the Silver tradition. At present, he is pianist with Art Blakey and he has chosen as soloists two men associated, at various times, with these musicians — Donald Byrd [tp] and Jackie McLean [as]….
Sam Jones and Art Taylor, on bass and drums, are veterans of several Blue Note sessions, and provide here their usual sympathetic support….”
- Joe Goldberg, insert notes to Davis Cup [Blue Note B-232098]

Up the street from the “old” Yoshi’s Jazz club and restaurant in Berkeley, CA was a small shop that sold LP’s [or, as they are referred to today – “vinyl”] and CD’s.

In typical Berkeley fashion, the shop had a distinctive name – D.B.A. Brown – and although I never asked, I assume the “D.B.A.” reference was to the standard initials for the phrase “doing business as.”

After driving over from San Francisco to catch pianist Benny Green’s trio at the club, I had a little time to kill before the first set so I parked my car in the nearby Dreyfus Ice Cream factory lot and strolled over to D.B.A. Brown.

While browsing the music on offer at the shop, I came across a solo piano CD by Walter Davis, Jr. entitled In Walked Thelonious [Mapleshade 56312] which I purchased with the idea that it would “keep my company” on the drive back to the city.

When the doors to the club opened, I was able to get a table close to Benny’s piano. I laid the Walter Davis, Jr. Monk tribute disc on the table, took off my jacket and placed an order with the cocktail waitress.

After playing a magnificent first set with his trio consisting of Christian McBride on bass and Kenny Washington on drums, Benny stepped down from the bandstand, noticed the In Walked Thelonious CD and said to me: “Isn’t Walter Davis, Jr. a gas?”

The next thing I know, Benny had seated himself at my table and began to regale me with stories about how Walter Davis, Jr. and Walter Bishop, another pianist who played in the style of Bud Powell, had helped him when he moved to New York [Benny grew up in Berkeley] and how much he had learned from them over the years. He couldn’t say enough nice things about these men.

Interestingly, although it was many years apart, we both first experienced Walter Davis, Jr. by listening to him on Jackie McLean’s New Soil Blue Note recording.

In addition to his marvelous Bud Powell/Horace Silver-inflected piano solos and accompaniment, Walter had contributed three, original contributions to New Soil [BLP 4013].

Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records was so impressed with Walter that soon thereafter, he featured him on his own LP entitled Davis Cup. [CDP 7243 8 32098 2 8]

I must admit that I hadn’t really followed Walter’s career that closely after those early Blue Note recordings.

But I’d really loved his writing and enjoyed his piano playing enough to pick up the Mapleshade CD featuring his solo piano interpretations of Monk’s tunes.

Walter’s treatment of Thelonious music was a revelation to me for as Pierre M. Sprey, the producer of the CD put it: “… in listening to Walter play Monk, I learned more about the inner workings of Monk’s music than in my previous thirty years of listening to the original.”

Talk about the serendipitous way that Life works: I had not heard Walter Davis, Jr. play for almost three decades and here I was listening to him play what has to be considered as one of the definitive solo piano treatments of Monk’s music ever recorded.

Pierre M. Sprey’s complete insert notes to In Walked Thelonious [Mapleshade 56312] are as follows.

© -Pierre M. Sprey, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Walter Davis, Jr. had been thinking about a solo recording project ever since he left Dizzy Gillespie's group in 1986. There was no question in Walter's mind as to what the album would be. It would be dedicated entirely to the music of his mentor and close friend, Thelonious Monk—a thank-you to the New York bebop giant who had taken Walter, a gifted East Orange, New Jersey teenager, under his wing in 1949.

Until the day he died in June, 1990, Walter did things the hard way. The Monk project was no exception. Rather than picking eight or ten comfortable Monk stan­dards and rehearsing them for a few days, he immersed himself in fifty of Monk's toughest compositions for two months, deliberately leaving the choice of which to record until the moment he sat down at the studio Steinway. As though things weren't difficult enough, he limited himself to three minutes pertune, saying, "I just want to get in, say what I have to say, and get out—no endless b.s. solos."

A week before the long-planned first recording session, Walter, a deeply mystical man, called me early one morning. Without saying hello, he said with a quiet intensity, "Man, you won't believe what happened to me last night. I sat down to my electric piano and Thelonious came into the room. I played for three hours and never even turned on the piano" For Walter, this was no vision or metaphor. Thelonious Monk really was in his basement practicing room, giving him specific technical lessons on how to play Monk, correcting Walter's tempo on one tune, revamping his chord voicings on another, showing him how to put more "stride" feeling into a third.

Still, I didn't fully understand how deeply Walter felt that this recording was to be a dialogue between himself and Monk until we got started. Most of the five days we worked in the studio, it was just Walter at the beautiful old Steinway and me at the tape recorder. But Walter was clearly playing for someone else. Every time he'd pull off a tricky time change or voice a chord in some startling way, he'd shoot a sly look of triumph sideways at the air—the kind of look you see when jazz musicians play to impress each other.

At one point, Walter was falling short of the strict standards he had set for himself. The tune was "Gallop's Gallop," intricate and laden with pitfalls. Walter had already tried eight takes, breaking off, deeply dissatisfied and frustrated, in the middle of each one. When I couldn't bear it anymore, I suggested he proceed to another tune, maybe return to this one later.

Walter replied instantly, "You don't understand, Pierre. If I don't do the hard ones, Thelonious will be laughing at my ass for the rest of my life." And indeed, on the ninth take, he whipped off a witty and jewel-like rendition—one that, no doubt, earned an approving chuckle from Monk.

In those five days of listening to Walter play Monk, I learned more about the inner workings of Monk's music than in my previous thirty years of listening to the original. Yetthis album presents neither a mere skillful imitation nor a Davis-style reinterpretation of Monk (even though Walter could have performed either task had he wanted). Instead, this album is a brilliant illumination of the elements that made Monk unique and unforgettable: the little boy playfulness, the devilish delight in startling harmonic or rhythmic twists, the teasing with slightly changed quotations from familiar standards, the old-time "stride" piano sound in the midst of modern harmonies, and the stark emotion of those angular, unadorned ballad lines. Walter has somehow managed to intensify each of these facets—in a way that sounds just like what Monk would have played had he chosen to let us in on his secrets. Yet he has also fused these elements into concise, polished gems quite different from Monk's own constructions.

For sheer playfulness, check out Walter's "Green Chimneys." For ballad lines of austere beauty, listen to what he does with "Ruby, My Dear." In "Criss Cross," Walter dissects Monk's devilish trickiness. "Gallop's Gallop" becomes a swinging vehicle for clarifying the stride roots in Monk's composition.

If you want to come to grips with what has been achieved here, compare some of Walter's versions side by side with Monk's. Pick something as overplayed as "'Round Midnight." If you listen first to Monk's solo version (on Blue Note's Genius of Modem Music, Vol. 1), then listen to either of Walter's versions, your immediate reaction will be surprise at how much Walter's improvisation differs without violating any aspect of Monk's spirit. Your second reaction will probably be to put the Monk solo back on the turntable because Walter's clear exposition has suddenly made you aware of the subtleties you missed the first time around.

Perhaps the most spontaneous tribute to Walter's otherworldly achievement in these sessions comes from Dwike Mitchell, the pianist in the Mitchell-Ruff duo. Several months after these sessions, I happened to be playing the tapes for Dwike. I had told him nothing about Walter's immersion in the Monk project or about Monk's "visit" to Walter's basement. After two cuts, Dwike stopped the tape and said, "I've been listening to Walter all my life and I know exactly how he plays. What's on this tape is not Walter; it's Monk playing through Walter's hands."

Here’s a sampling of what’s on offer in Walter Davis, Jr.’s In Walked Thelonious [Mapleshade 56312]. The tune is Monk’s rarely heard Gallop’s Gallop.