What a privilege to hear Anthony Davis play two sets of solo piano at the Western Front last night. His performance—a return to Vancouver after thirty years—also marked the release of past – piano – present, an LP anthology of audio recordings from the Western Front’s archive featuring tracks by Anthony Davis, Paul Plimley, Al Neil and John Kameel Farah.
In her sleeve notes, pianist Dana Reason notes how, in his 1985 performance of “Behind the Rock,” Davis’s “ease mobilizing and maximizing the piano . . . suggests a careful study of Duke Ellington’s rich orchestral tradition.” Not that Davis’s playing sounds studied or academic; his aesthetic – his performance style and his method – seems to offer an idiosyncratic mix of (what George Lewis has called) Eurological and Afrological sensibilities, blurring composition and improvisation, chamber music and blues, Olivier Messiaen and James P. Johnson, recital and gig, to generate a vital, kinetic music of layered possibilities. He played two sets lasting almost an hour each. The first set opened with a piece built from variations on cascading intervals, which Davis later identified as fragments from his composition Wayang No. IV. The second piece, which Davis did not identify, spun magisterially through components of what felt like a 32-bar song, unpacking and reassembling melody with a recognizably Ellingtonian grandeur. The third piece was a version of “Ankle and Wrist” from his 1997 opera Amistad; built on shards of a blues motif, the music surged in swathes gathered and propelled by Davis’s powerful sustain pedal, while his strong left hand offered up lines recalling Sir Roland Hannaor Earl Hines. Davis’s touch is fierce and firm, but he also has a keen capacity for tenderness, as the concluding piece of the first set, a gently deconstructed jazz waltz, suggested.
The second set opened with what he called his “Goddess Variations,” improvisations developed around the “orchestral material” from the aria “They come as if from the heavens (Goddess of the Waters),” also from Amistad. He followed with an extended wordless version of “Five Moods from an English Garden,” a work he described composing when he found himself stranded in Munich – after touring with violinist Leroy Jenkins – sleeping on a studio floor; on a snowy May morning, he said, he walked through the city’s English Gardens – listening to birdcalls – and into an exhibit of Wassily Kandinsky paintings – “moods” – at a gallery there. The composition draws onthese two palettes to create a vivid tone poem. The closing piece from the second set involved a return to Wayang No. IV, extending Davis’s exploration of the material in intense overlaid chords to produce what felt like kinetic densities, a powerfully mobile aural weave. As an encore for an enthusiastic, deeply engaged audience, Davis played a remarkable meditative version of “Monk’s Mood,” a suitably elegant and resonant conclusion to a brilliant concert.