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Anthony Davis

Anthony Davis
Amistad
New World 80627-2

Anthony Davis - Amistad

For a brief time in the early 1980s, Anthony Davis embodied “neoclassicism” in jazz. The phrase evoked ripe historical parallels with Igor Stravinsky, who, after his Russian period spawned the scandalous “Le sacre du printemps,” spent over three decades exploring tonal harmonies, albeit with some quirks, propelled by bright, even muscular rhythms. Jazz had gone through something of a Russian period by the time Davis made his first recording as a member of Leo Smith’s New Dalta Ahkri mere weeks before the mid-point of the ‘70s; both Fire Music and loft jazz filtered jazz’s African roots through an expressionist lens, often relegating design to a secondary consideration. Like Smith, Davis valued rigorous methodologies; but unlike the trumpeter, whose Rhythm Units were gateways – as opposed to road maps – to improvisation, Davis’ first recordings as a solo pianist, a collaborator with flutist James Newton in duo and quartet settings, and as the helmsman of his own quartets, distinguish him as a more conventional composer. Whereas in Smith’s music, any honest improvisation is valid, regardless of its distant or intangible relationship to the written material, Davis etched clear inviolable parameters.

While Davis’ early recordings are rife with brilliant uses of compositional techniques – his use of canonic form on “Estraven” (Of Blues and Dreams; Sackville; 1978) and the aptly titled “Hocket in the Pocket” (Hidden Voices; India Navigation; 1979) are particularly noteworthy – it is the emergent Balinese influence on Davis’ “Wayang” series that would elevate the description of Davis’ music as neoclassical from passing comparisons with Ellington or John Lewis to a recognition of musical values that were truly beyond category.  “Multiple” is the key word in explaining this advent in Davis’ music, which first manifested in both ensemble pieces like “Suite for Another World” from the Sackville album, as well as solo piano pieces like “Under the Double Moon” (a sketch of what would become Davis’ second opera) from Lady of the Mirrors (India Navigation; 1980); the music’s rigorous energy is established through its use of multiple meters, tempi and tonal centers. However, it is the eponymous 1981 debut of his Epistēmē ensemble (Gramavision) where Davis’ music took on a new stature. Upon its release, his use of what he called “clashing repetitive structures” reflexively prompted reviewers to triangulate Davis’ music using Minimalism and Ellington. With the clarity of hindsight, however, it is music’s dramatic content that makes this album and its successor, Hemispheres (Gramavision; 1983), a double watershed.

Now that there are three on CD, it is now possible to trace how elements of his solo music and his music for Epistēmē present in Davis’ operas. It is a lexicon that stands in sharp contrast to his jazz usage in the pool hall and ballroom sequences of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X (Gramavision; 1989)and the love duet between Betty Ford and Fidel Castro in Tania (Koch; 1998), based on the Patty Hearst affair.  Many of the themes Davis wrote for Epistēmē explicitly reappear in X, the most poignant example being “A Walk through the Shadow,” a piano solo built upon slow unfolding arpeggiated phrases that Davis orchestrated to depict Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca. The album’s ensemble tracks provide a more common template. The various 3:2 ratios of odd and even metered phrases Davis sets into motion continuously send sparks flying. At the same time, Davis sends multiple motives through the sections of the orchestra, so that material first heard in one section or in a specific pitch range soon reappears in another section or register. The result is both mesmerizing and invigorating, which is essential if a jazzcentric listener is going to sit through what is, bottom line, an opera.

With Amistad, a retelling of the 1839 slave ship revolt that resulted in one of the more searing legal trials and moral tests in US history, Davis’ approach is at its most streamlined. While most of his score could stand alone as concert music, it still, for all its bristling rhythms, counterpoint and textures, selflessly serves Thulani Davis’ pungent, no-frills libretto. This is attributable to how the composer has mastered the art of the ostinato and pens figures that are never overplayed to the point of being domineering or boorish. The result is that Davis’ vocal parts, despite its twists and voltage spikes, glide over the orchestration; it also is a measure of how well conductor Dennis Russell Davies steers the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Orchestra and Chorus.  When you take the stage action into consideration – some of the most treacherous lines are sung by the sterling tenor Thomas Young, who plays the Teiresias-like Trickster god, while climbing the ship’s rigging – the ease with which the voices mesh with the orchestration is repeatedly astounding. Additionally, the streamlining of Davis’ lexicon reinforces his unique melodic sensibility, which frequently bypasses the traditional paradigm of recitative and aria. Additionally, Davis is remarkably effective in producing an alloyed vernacular when he incorporates hymns and traditional secular music; even though Davis cites Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk as sources for his writing for the Trickster, there are no echoes of “So What” or “Work” to be heard. Though he has always been sparing in his use of period genres, Davis’ usage in his previously issued operas approaches pastiche, compared to Amistad.  

All of these velocity-producing elements are crucial given the collision of cultures and historical forces woven into the libretto, one replete with Yoruban deities (in addition to the Trickster, the Goddess of the Waters appears in the second act, played by mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar)), phrenologists, and a pack of scandal-driven reporters. Thulani Davis’ verse is pellucid and incandescent, efficiently driving the narrative – which encompasses high-seas action, courtroom drama, and political intrigue – while dispensing iridescent nuggets. Many of the most bracing lines are Young’s, who sings “The unexpected is my realm./Liberty’s my kingdom./Change is my middle name./It’s time to take the helm.” as the Trickster starts the revolt. However, Thulani Davis spreads the wealth to such secondary characters as the Goddess (“This howling is not of the seas./It is a madness,/not of nature,/not of the gods,/but of men.”) and the Africans’ attorney, former US President John Quincy Adams, sung by bass-baritone Stephen West (“We cannot chase slaves/for other slaving men./And we must not make/slaves of free men./Such a moral outrage/puts us all in bondage.”). Though Cinque, the revolt’s leader, does not have quite the dominant role one might expect – especially since the latter-day Cinque, leader of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was a major figure in Tania – he does have arguably the most poignant lines, which are nailed by bass-baritone Mark S. Doss: “In this village,/slavery is the salt,/carving the survivors/from the inside out,/ leaving their forms,/taking their water, their life,/leaving only firewood.”

Despite the exceptional efforts of the Davis cousins to create a digestible work, listening to Amistad is nevertheless a demanding proposition. This isn’t background music or a soundtrack for the commute. Even though its two acts clock in just seconds over the two-hour mark, it takes several sessions to hear the opera fluently, to understand the entwined relationship between score and libretto, and to fully appreciate how the work uses this unique episode in the sordid legacy of slavery to reflect the contradictions of the American ethos. Too often, justice hangs on a technicality in the US; in this regard, it is useful to remember that the decision that freed the Africans was rendered by basically the same Supreme Court that handed down the Dred Scott decision, which did not require the chasing of escaped slaves, just their return to bondage. It is the apposition of this flawed enlightenment with the caprice of the Trickster and the wisdom of the Goddess that is at the core of what is visionary about Amistad. In his notes to Lady of the Mirrors, Anthony Davis stated that he thought of his music “in terms of an imaginative world separate from the all too real world yet complete and vital within itself.” With his historical operas, he has brought the two worlds together; they tenaciously co-exist on Amistad.
–Bill Shoemaker

ECM Records

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