SUMMER RE-UP #5: Gamelan On!

Originally posted 13 August 2007


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