Roger Davidson is, I’ve read, an experienced and highly talented musician, with a large and, I would even presume, deserved reputation as performer and choral conductor. He’s creative and inventive, but for the listener with more jazz experience, this born and intuitive musician is lacking mostly the knowledge of what not to play. His ears have picked up a lot in passing, and just as members of one musical tradition or genre find specific interest in certain items belonging within another, Davidson took quite strongly to the piano music of Bill Evans.
Where, in times gone by, European concert musicians have expressed fascination with jazz, known enough to doubt they could, and deny they could hope to play this other music, Evans was never so wholly opposite to a musician of Davidson’s background. What doesn’t come naturally, however, is the sort of musical concentration Evans was capable of, especially after Messrs. Charles Mingus and Miles Davis found in him a real contributor to the music they went on to make in his company. Davidson is sort of halfway to Evans, without the closeness of idiom Andre Previn has from his background. Maybe a nearer comparison would be found among Latin American pianists who quote jazz, though Davidson’s perhaps a more accomplished pianist than most, not to mention all around musician. And here he’s not emulating the more accomplished forays of Daniel Barenboim into the music of his native Argentina, but echoing (hence the “Rio” of the CD’s title) Brazilian and other music which was never so hard to hear during his youth in 1960s America—or the jazz which owed some of its currency to the joys from Brazil.
One aspect of knowing what not to play as a contribution to jazz (rather than jazz playing at an amateur or private pastime level) concerns repertoire. It’s a byword among jazz writers that Richard Rogers comes in two flavours, which is to say plain-or-Hammerstein, and Hart-or-just-plain-wonderful. The wit of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics required wit and nuance from Rodgers as a melodist setting them. The comic intelligence of Hart’s writing provided both a climate of inspiration and a challenge to produce tunes which embodied more than a single mood, and demanded a greater depth of underlying harmony. A Rodgers and Hart tune does some of the work for the jazz improviser.
Outstanding jazz performances on tunes written to the words of Oscar Hammerstein III have, as a rule, required a certain inclination of approach: the performer has had to supply his own wit, playful irony, or even mock naivety, as in Sonny Rollins’s “Surrey With a Fringe on Top”. It doesn’t matter who composed “My Favorite Things” or “If I Were a Bell”, as they are further tunes which needed to be rephrased—and presented challenges because superficially so unlikely. The modal improvisations of John Coltrane and Miles Davis combined with these tunes to take these men where they wanted to go, and that wasn’t the already inhabited and even built-up territory where Rodgers in Rio settles down.
“Surrey” is for Davidson a literal challenge to improvisation, and he recognises nothing in it which needs naturalisation as jazz. “Edelweiss” he likewise takes straight, a penance to me given the tune’s history as a pop “hit” in my youth, when it became a thing drunks bawled. It would need irony and/or astringency to be more than a merely half-jazz vehicle. Davidson takes it straight even in bossanova-izing it, for too often his bossafications of tunes simply add diddly-dum elaborations to initial melodies which for a jazz interest didn’t need such full expositions as he gives of the original melody. “Blue Moon”, however, is a surprising success, with the coinage of a new melody. Roger Davidson, whatever else, has real ideas, and does actually transform the material once he has got through the over-elaborated theme statements, in proper compositional manner. Davidson’s a real musician. If his theme statements suggest cocktail piano, some of his improvisations are at a much higher level. He probably needs to listen a lot more widely, and with proper concentration. He doesn’t bear comparison with, for example, John Bunch, currently a real master and at his best in a trio date under the bassist Bob Haggart’s name on the Arbors label.
Concentration’s crucial. The 1940s pioneer Al Haig’s old Jazz Will o’ the Wisp album is a case in point, recorded when Haig—in the early 1950s—was working with the best, a masterpiece even beside the still considerable albums Haig recorded after his re-emergence a couple of decades later. Jazz Will o’ the Wisp achieves things Roger Davidson possibly doesn’t as yet know to try for - though don’t underrate him. He is quoted to the effect that Rodgers’s tunes were still new to him. So is quite a lot more.