WORLD PREMIERE: Anthony Davis’s You Have the Right to Remain Silent!

Anthony Davis
You Have the Right to Remain Silent!
Unreleased : 2007

Perspectives Ensemble featuring JD Parran and Earl Howard.

Jason Robinson and Anthony Davis
Cerulean Landscape
Clean Feed : 2010

JR, sax; AD, piano.

You’re in for a treat. This guest post by composer, saxophonist, and flutist Jason Robinson offers invaluable insights and a world premiere from one of his heroes and longtime collaborators, Anthony Davis.

Anthony Davis is one of jazz’s greatest living pianists and composers. These days, he’s better known in classical circles for acclaimed operas like X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, but he recorded a series of remarkable albums in the 1980s and has quietly continued his fruitful involvement with jazz. We’re thrilled that he’s allowed us to debut two tracks from his new piece “You Have the Right To Remain Silent!” which to our ears evokes Ellington and New Orleans with classical structures and electronic flourishes. Which is to say, it’s damn singular.

Davis’s recent duo music with Jason Robinson has been remarkable as well and a showcase for his piano playing. Check out the track “Vicisstitudes” above for proof. And be sure to scroll down for more information about Robinson’s trifecta of amazing albums from 2010. If you missed any of them, they’re each well worth your time.

Take it away, Jason…

A seemingly forgotten fact about pianist and composer Anthony Davis: he was there at the beginning of the so-called “young lion” phenomenon in jazz during the early 1980s. Indeed, Tony was a member of a motley assortment of musicians that performed at the June 30, 1982, Carnegie Hall concert titled “The Young Lions,” an event produced by Nesuhi Ertegen and Bruce Lundvall for the Kool Jazz Festival.

In the liner notes of the live album from the concert, and told again in an interview a few years ago, Lundvall humorously claims that he talked Ertegen out of using the original title for the concert: “The Young Turks.” And what a difference this name change has made! Now the sine qua non for a generation of jazz “traditionalists” that rose to prominence in the 1980s, the term “young lions” operates as a kind of shorthand for marketing strategies employed by record labels and publicists as well as virtuoso performance practices that hew close to the trope of jazz as “America’s classical music.”

Remarkably, the Carnegie Hall concert busted open the orthodoxies of the “young lion” phenomenon before they were born. On the heels of his tenure with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Wynton Marsalis was there. But so too were baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, flutist James Newton, and cellist Abdul Wadud, among many others. In his contribution to the liner notes, Leonard Feather writes “[t]here are touches of Ellington/Carney where Anthony Davis’ piano is prominent,” noting the historical context for the piano and baritone saxophone interplay on Bluiett’s composition “Thank You.”

Quite poignantly, Feather quotes Tony at length: “I think of myself as an extension of classical music, because the compositional aspect is dominant in my work.  Being labeled as a jazz musician is really limiting and constricting.  I don’t call it jazz—I call it creative music or world art music” (“world art music” might be read as a reference to Wadada Leo Smith’s 1973 treatise Notes [8 pieces] source a new world music: creative music). For Feather, the album “confirms Davis’ conviction that music by artists of his calibre,” quoting Tony, “deserves to be taken as seriously as someone like Stockhausen.”

What if this varied, lived concoction of “classical,” “creative music,” and “world art music” were central to the vision of “America’s classical music” championed by public institutions such as Jazz at Lincoln Center? Perhaps we’d be reminded more often of the continually evolving, living nature of the jazz tradition. Regardless of the jazz culture wars of our current era, Tony’s music over the last thirty-plus years charts a unique and visionary path through creative music. While he emphasizes his “compositional aspect” to Feather (perhaps an Ellington reference), I nevertheless hear Tony’s music as a special combination of improvisation and composition. Like many of his friends from Chicago’s famed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians*, Tony’s composing privileges improvisation. And his improvising gives credence to “instantaneous composition,” what some use to define improvisation.

Around the time of the “young lions” concert, Tony was becoming a prominent compositional voice in American music.  His first opera—X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X—premiered to much critical acclaim in 1986 by the New York City Opera. Since then, he’s written four more operas, numerous other pieces for musical theatre, an oratorio that addresses the September 11, 2001, tragedy, and much more. Before and during all of this, however, he was a prolific pianist and an improviser of the highest order. In the late 1970s and 1980s he maintained a trio with flutist James Newton and cellist Abdul Wadud; had a quartet that included vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Ed Blackwell; and led Episteme, a medium-sized ensemble dedicated to performing his compositions.

Although I’m familiar with much of his music, and I’ve performed on the recorded version of his opera Tania (based on the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst), most of my musical experiences with Tony been in the context of our duo. In this setting, Tony seamlessly draws from multiple sound universes—his improvisational vocabulary pulls equally from Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Mary Lou Williams, as well as Stravinsky, Stockhausen, and John Cage.  Grounded in a deep reverence for history and tradition, the genius of Tony’s playing is his ability to take the music in any direction. In the duo context, in particular, he has a special knack for “orchestral” piano playing—if you listen closely, you can imagine how each musical gesture might be scored for different instruments of an orchestra. Several jazz historians have noted how Earl “Fatha” Hines played “horn-like” piano and how Jelly Roll Morton naturally grafted his solo piano approach into his arrangements for the Red Hot Peppers. Tony fits easily in this lineage of innovators: he has a special knack for expanding the piano and you hear this ability very clearly in his improvising.

At the same time, however, much of Tony’s composed music evidences a strong awareness of the possibilities of improvisation. Using improvisation as a compositional strategy isn’t about randomness; instead, for Tony improvisation highlights and relies on the agency of performers. And it’s no coincidence that improvisation is centrally important to much of his composed work. Tony’s profound understanding of improvisational traditions in African American and other musics might be the central bellwether of his work.

Score for "You Have the Right to Remain Silent!"

I’m especially excited by a newer piece of his titled “You Have the Right to Remain Silent!,” a clarinet concerto written for his long-time collaborator, multi-reedist JD Parran, which also features the synthesizer work of another long-time collaborator, Earl Howard. Divided into three movements, the concerto interweaves improvisation and composition in patently Davisonian ways. A studio recording of the concerto is scheduled for release within the next year.

Tony has generously shared an unreleased live recording of the first two movements of the piece (the world premiere, nonetheless!), performed by the Perspectives Ensemble at Columbia University’s Miller Theater on April 16, 2007. Below, you’ll also find an excerpt from the score. If you’re used to reading music notation, you might notice the shift from composed parts to improvisation in Parran’s and Howard’s parts.  I’d suggest listening to both movements in their entirety before looking at the score. The rest speaks for itself.

Download part of the score, an excerpt from the first movement, here.

[*Note: Although Tony is closely associated with many people involved with the AACM, despite reports to the contrary, he has never been an official member of the musicians collective.]

Thanks to Neil Stillings for sharing the concert poster.

Last fall, Jason Robinson released a trio of amazing albums – each on a different label and each with a distinct musical agenda. Critics have been slow to fully come to terms with the ambition and achievement of this trifecta, but you shouldn’t sleep on any of these:

Cerulean Landscape - You can sample a track from this duo recording with Anthony Davis above. Beautiful and unusual music, it’s been described as the blues as imagined by both Duke Ellington and science fiction writer Samuel R. Delaney. Available from Clean Feed.

The Two Faces of Janus - An ensemble recording featuring the stellar cast of Rudresh Mahanthappa, Marty Ehrlich, Liberty Ellman, Drew Gress, and George Schuller. This music is angular and expressive, with both fierce grooves and abstract passages. Available from Cuneiform.

Cerberus Reigning
- The second in a series of three solo releases, this features Robinson on electronics, soprano and tenor saxophones, and alto flute, using computer programs to explore new modes of improvisation. Available from Accretions.

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