Gamelan On!


Anthony Davis
Gramavision : 1981

AD, piano; George Lewis, trombone; Abdul Wadud, cello; Shem Guibbory, violin; Dwight Andrews, flute, bass clarinet, piccolo; Jay Hoggard, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone; Jay Hoggard, glockenspiel, marimba, vibraphone; Mark Helias, conductor; Warren Smith, bass drum, gong, xylophone, tympani, marimba, glockenspiel, vibraphone; Pheeroan akLaff, gong, drums.

Drew LeDrew: Hearing this for the first time is like washing ashore on an undiscovered island. What a beautiful album.

Chilly Jay Chill: Absolutely. I love the way Anthony Davis mixes jazz with the intense droning repetitions of minimalism and the complex chiming rhythms of Southeast Asian music. It’s pretty genius. Both intricate and immediate. Heady music for your body.

DLD: It’s hard to believe Episteme, and Davis’s work in general, hasn’t been more influential. The ideas and sounds are compelling and far from exhausted. This was released in 1981 but it still feels fresher than some cutting-edge jazz today.

CJC: I know Vijay Iyer is a big fan of Davis’s music from this period. You can hear echoes of it in his own particular melding of jazz and Southeast Asian music and minimalism. But yeah, apart from him, I can’t think of any other younger jazz musicians who have taken up this torch. Maybe we’re overlooking someone?

DLD: Not every evolutionary branch on the jazz tree has borne fruit. Some just lose their leaves and wait for a spring that never comes. But this one really deserves to be revivified.

CJC: Maybe part of the reason Davis’s music has fallen into undeserved obscurity has something to do with his absence from the scene. After a string of terrific jazz albums, he dedicated himself full time to classical composition in the late 1980s. He did the opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which I’ve got to say I never really dug. The tones were too dessicated and the singing too pinched and formalized. It lacked the vitality of his earlier work.

DLD: I wonder if folks saw his “defection” as a betrayal? Or used as it an excuse to ignore this amazing music? It’s a shame he’s turned his back on jazz.

CJC: Or maybe there were already so many unjazz elements in his jazz releases that other musicians — or audiences — got turned off? I mean, “Wayang II” often sounds like it could be a Steve Reich recording in its repetition and percussive consistency. That is when it’s not sounding like a straight gamelan piece.

DLD: The violinst here – Shem – was a new name to me and here’s what I found: “The original violinist in ‘Steve Reich and Musicians,’ his recording of Violin Phase is now a classic of American avant-garde music.” So there’s another minimalist connection..

CJC: And according to critic Robert Palmer, “Wayang” is a technical term related to gamelan!

DLD: But before we get too carried away, let’s not forget this has got plenty of jazz mojo. In “Wayang II” the fantastic drummer akLaff keeps this slightly off-kilter, and doesn’t much miss the “one.”

CJC: Good point. Plus many others in the band also have a serious jazz pedigree. Rozie, Smith, and Wadud all played together with Muhal Richard Abrams on some of his 1980s big band recordings. That music seems like a second cousin to Davis’s work, though the pacing and textures are more closely controlled here.

DLD: Don’t forget the mighty George Lewis either, who’s played with both Basie and Braxton. Did you know he and Davis were undergrads at Yale together? That’s the start of a pretty good college combo. Did Lewis play in the marching band, do you think?

CJC: I’m going to guess Braxton’s marching band music on Creative Orchestra 1976 was as close as he got to taking the field.

DLD: One of the great things about Episteme is the way the players absorb the minimalist and gamelan approaches and give it their own spin. There was an interesting article in Friday’s New York Times on minimalism that puts the album in another light.

CJC: The gist being?

DLD: Their classical critics used Philip Glass’ 70th bday as an occasion to wax reflective. Here’s Bernard Holland: “Minimalism is a musical art that says very few things over long periods of time. This is in opposition to music that takes a long time to say many things (Mahler), music that says very little in normal amounts of time (Saint-Saëns) or music that says a great deal in practically no time at all (Webern).” He also cites this paradox: “Listeners enter a trancelike involvement but can answer the phone or go to the refrigerator and not miss much at all.” That, in a nutshell, is why I’d be reluctant to simply label this “minimalist jazz.” Anthony Davis’s music demands attention in a way that most great minimalist compositions don’t.

CJC: Davis really transformed his original sources to create his own spellbinding brand of repetition music. And you’re right, Episteme hardly functions like pure minimalism. Though while we’re on the subject, let’s give a quick shout-out to the amazing early works of Terry Riley (“Rainbow in Curved Air”), LaMonte Young (“Sunday Morning Blues”), Philip Glass (“Music in Twelve Parts”), and Steve Reich (“Music for 18 Musicians”).

DLD: In short, Episteme is a real melding of worlds. Somewhat typical of the Gramavision output. Another lost classic from that sadly defunct label.

CJC: Before we go, I’d like to publicly wonder if the Six Feet Under theme composer copped those opening chords from the lovely “Sustained Tones.”

DLD: And lastly – someone please ask us if this is jazz in the comments. Do.

Category Anthony Davis

16 Responses to Gamelan On!

  1. …and anyone enjoying this Davis sample should hunt down a copy of Davis’ later dance piece for Molissa Fenley called ‘Hemispheres’ (also released on Gramavision). There’s some shared material between the two discs.

    I heard Hemispheres as an undergrad on Steve Malagodi’s excellent new music show on WLRN in Miami, and it was one of the most important moments in my musical life (on par with accidentally seeing Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society live…)

    I’m sad that Davis didn’t seem to get the recognition in the legit world either (maybe that’s changed as a result of the opera work, dunno…)

  2. AD never slowed down and never really “left” the scene from his own perspective – just that his emphasis changed. He still plays whenever he wants and composes up a storm. I think he provides an important example of someone who developed a sustainable career doing whatever he wants, and has never let his life be defined by genre.

    His orchestral and operatic works still feature much to sink our teeth into, despite not apparently being “jazz”. I think the best example is his opera Amistad, which I really hope is recorded and released someday. He also has done a lot of film and theater scoring, including most famously Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Most recently he tells me he’s working on a large-scale work about the Cuban revolution in collaboration with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. That gives us all something to look forward to!

    Other links – Schirmer, UCSD

  3. apart from him [Vijay Iyer], I can’t think of any other jazz musician who’s even remotely taken up this [jazz / Southeast Asian music / minimalism] torch.

    Just to start the ball rolling: the “improvising gamelan orchestra” on George E. Lewis’ Voyager, the quasi-minimalist Tilting Ground by Chick Lyall and Tore Brunborg, and, more contentiously, the occasional moment in Linda Sharrock/Wolfgang Puschnig collaborations.

    Maybe part of the reason Davis’s music has fallen into undeserved obscurity has something to do with his absence from the scene.

    I wonder what it means for there to a scene to be absent from. Is it possible for Davis to have “turned his back on jazz”? What is jazz to which you can turn back on? How does one go about “defecting” from a musical tradition?

    S, tig

  4. Vijay – Excellent point about Davis and the scene and his own muscial emphasis. Not being defined by genre always seems to have been one of the main hallmarks of his music, so you’re right that it should hardly be a surprise he’s charted his own course. I’ve read that Gramavision recording of X doesn’t do justice to the live experience of the opera – so perhaps we’re being hasty in our judgement of that piece. And of course anything more from Davis is cause for celebration regardless of so-called genre. Thanks for the info and the links and the corrective perspective on his more recent career.

    Tig – will have to look into Tilting Ground. thanks for the tip. as for the scene and jazz and defection, we’re mainly wondering why more people don’t seem to know about Davis’s wonderful recordings from the 80s. Especially folks who listen to and play jazz. Thoughts? Or maybe we’re just traveling in the wrong circles?

  5. Even less well known than Episteme and, imho, even better, is his “Variations in Dream-Time” on India Navigation. Great recording and never, I don’t think, made available on disc. Agreed on the work for Fenley as being worthwhile as well.

    btw, earlier and better Reich: “Drumming” and the mid 60s tape pieces.

  6. I can’t help noticing how many of those names (including Davis), are familiar from James Newton’s recordings from around that time, and, on casual listen (still waiting for the second track as I type), it seems reminiscent of some of his music to me. And Newton certainly knows something about Gamelan music, although I don’t know how much of an influence it’s been.

  7. is this jazz?

    wonderful music

    wonderful conversation

  8. I don’t think Anthony Davis has left jazz at all: his recent playing in Leo Smith’s Golden Quartet certainly provides evidence that he hasn’t lost a move. What’s more, he’s taken something of his roots with him into his further adventures. In March, I flew to Omaha to review his fifth (!) opera, Wakonda’s Dream, and was delighted to see J.D. Parran, Mark Dresser and Gustavo Aguilar in the pit orchestra — and to hear the many contributions of saxophonist and electronic soundscaper Earl Howard.

    And on April 17, Anne Midgette reviewed You Have the Right to Remain Silent, a compact new clarinet concerto written for Parran, which I didn’t get to hear.

    I completely agree that it’s utterly shameful Davis’s Gramavision recordings (and James Newton’s, and John Carter’s, etc., etc.) have been out of print for so long. If there were one defunct label I could magically rejuvenate, it would probably be that one.

  9. I had Episteme on cassette that finally wore out–couldn’t believe my luck when I found a used copy of it on cd last year. It’s one of those rare recordings that suspends time when you listen to it.

  10. I’m curious what ever happened to Abdul Wadud.
    He seemingly has disappeared in a Grimes-like
    fashion. He played with Anthony Davis quite a bit
    in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s. And I
    believe his last record appearance was on a Marty
    Ehrlich record in ’97. To me, he was/is such a beautiful
    musician – so disciplined but so free and lyrical. Any
    word on his whereabouts?

  11. Hi- “Wayang” is the Indonesian/Malay word for theater…amazing shadow puppets, especially wild with gamelan music going on.

    Interesting to look at a genre something like “World Jazz.” The earliest being…what? Duke’s so-called “Jungle Music”? Dizzy’s Cubano inflections? Not entirely sure when “Latin Jazz” started to emerge. I don’t know much about that strain. Don Cherry had his own versions. Alice Coltrane. John Coltrane too, to a certain extent. I guess there were amalgams in so-called jazz fusion too, with Miles using different inflections, Weather Report, Mahavishnu, etc. Sonny’s calypso grooves. I used to have a record of Buddy Rich and Allah Rakha, man I wish I still had that (mostly because the b side was a tal in 11 beats, 4 2’s and a 3, that was killer, although the Buddy/Allah stuff was fascinatingly cheesy…Buddy and Rakha trading snare drum/tabla fours was a wonder of cognitive dissonance).

    That minimalism was influenced by gamelan in structural and even melodic ways is another story to trace. For gamelan, jazz and minimalism to come together in this work by Davis is very cool. Thanks for posting.


  12. Joel, you’ll be happy to hear that a writer I know recently tracked down Wadud’s current whereabouts, and is planning to bring the world up to speed some time soon. (I know I was!)

  13. very interesting sounds indeed… if i’d had that in a blindfold test i’d have said butch morris for sure…

    you say gamelan and the word “javanese” pops into my head – and maybe something to do with drums? – i have NOTHING else to attach to that, hence no preconception about which elements of this music are demonstrably inspired by/referencing the gamelan tradition… i didn’t find that an impediment to listening

    thanks generally for your recent stuff, i have been checking in as regularly as ever and digging most of the sounds, but don’t always find time to comment these days..!

  14. A couple of other recordings that this brought to mind “Equilibrista (dedicated to Steve Reich)” by Haden/Garbarek/Gismonti, and Wendy Carlos’ Beauty in the Beast album, which conains a mix of microtonal “modern classical” music, and what sounds like attempts to reproduce Gamelan music on a synth…BTW, somewhere I have some sort of Clockwork Orange movie book that includes a score for Carlos’ “Timesteps,” and I noticed that it has some extended passages where improv is indicated.

  15. Another excellent recording in this vein is AD’s Song for the Old World, which has gamelan (and other) influences. If you love Ed Blackwell, his solo on the title cut is outstanding. The LP was released on India Navigation -anyone know anything about the possibility of reissue?

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