In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher
True story: I’ve never successfully interviewed musician Richard Davis, and my one attempt to talk to him left me too embarrassed to try again. A few years ago I figured I’d try to land a Q&A ahead of a headlining set the revered jazz and classical bassist and (now retired) UW-Madison professor was playing at the Isthmus jazz festival. I wrote to his university email and he wrote back with a phone number. I called it, hoping to agree on a time, then take a couple days to prepare some questions. Well, guess what, he was very busy rehearsing for the show and a very popular teacher on top of that, and it just wasn’t gonna happen. He said he could do it right then, but I hesitated, because I just wasn’t as prepared as I would have liked to be. So I said thank-you-anyway and sorry and left it feeling like a ding-dong for wasting the man’s time.
True to this pattern of screwing up in things related to the living jazz legend, I also missed the tribute to Davis held earlier this month at the Wisconsin Book Festival. I also don’t know how I could possibly amass a comprehensive knowledge of his 60-odd years of work as a collaborator and bandleader. But just because, I figured I’d share a few of his performances that are special to me. The ones people most often mention—Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and anything Davis made with Eric Dolphy—are must-listens too.
“Epistrophy”: Taking up a whole side of the 1972 live album Epistrophy & Now’s The Time, this performance stretches one of Thelonious Monk’s most beloved compositions into a disorienting storm. It’s not surprising that Davis, drummer Freddie Waits, pianist Joe Bonner, saxophonist Clifford Jordan, and trumpeter Marvin Peterson would explore the playful dissonance built into the tune. But every time I put it on, the looming controlled chaos of this piece takes me by surprise.
Tatsuya Nakamura Quartet, Song Of Pat: Jesse Ponkamo, bassist for Wisconsin punk greats Tenement, told me about this 1976 album. Japanese jazz drummer Tatsuya Nakamura leads this spacious, forward-looking session, and Davis serves as both a sonic center and an explorative force. On the opening track “Big Father” and on the title track, Davis’ bass takes something of a lead role, providing everything from sturdy melodic anchors to searing bowed passages.
“Shiny Stockings”: One of the more just straight-up fun records I’ve heard from Davis’ career is Heavy Sounds, a 1968 collaboration with drummer Elvin Jones. This bluesy track sports a mellow groove and a fantastic bass solo. It’s not as adventurous as the other two things on this list, but Davis still brings his masterful touch to it.
New this week:
Reid Kurkerewicz reports on a rough year for the old Smart Studios building.
Scott Gordon takes a brief look at Madison electronic/pop project Mori Mente’s new EP.
The Nitty Gritty has a weird new Halloween burger special, and Chris Lay survived it.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Madison-based designer/artist/musician Erin Fuller wrote about drawing inspiration from Adventure Time. The UW Cinematheque blog previews this Saturday’s screening of Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Two high-profile stand-up announcements: Jenny Slate will play February 1 and 2 at the Comedy Club on State, and Trevor Noah will visit the Alliant Energy Center on Feb. 8.
This week’s Madison calendar: Filipino art song with Leslie Damaso at the Wisconsin Union Play Circle. R&B survivor Bettye LaVette plays the Stoughton Opera House. Madison singer-songwriters Jentri Colello and Paige Campbell team up at Communication. And more.