Black pianist Anthony Davis (1951), who was raised in the white intellectual milieu of Princeton University, exposed to European classical music before jazz, and educated at Yale University, formed Advent in 1973 (with Gerry Hemingway on drums, George Lewis on trombone, Wes Brown on bass and Hal Lewis on saxophone),
debuted on record with Leo Smith (1974) and then relocated to New York.
His solo piano album Past Lives (june 1978) was still influenced by Thelonious Monk (Crepuscule - A suite for Monk) but already elaborate
(Locomotif No. 1) and poignant (Of Blues & Dreams).
His compositional skills fully blossomed with the 29-minute three-movement Suite for Another World, on Of Blues and Dream (july 1978), featuring violinist Leroy Jenkins, cellist Abdul Wadud and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff.
Another creative quartet (with vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Ed Blackwell) penned the 12-minute ethnic suite Song for the Old World and the bebop tribute An Anthem for the Generation that Died on Song for the Old World (july 1978).
The series of impressive combos continued with Hidden Voices (march 1979), for a quintet with flutist James Newton, trombonist George Lewis, bassist Rick Rozie and drummer Pheeroan akLaff, that included Davis' Sudden Death and Past Lives as well as Newton's Crystal Texts Set I Pre-A Reflection.
The solo-piano masterpiece Lady of the Mirrors (1980) contained
at least two elegant compositions that did not belong to any jazz tradition:
the ten-minute Five Moods From an English Garden
and the 12-minute Under The Double Moon, inspired by the Indonesian "wayang" style, besides the Duke Ellington tribute Man on a Turquoise Cloud and a couple of moody meditations.
The same "wayang" was the centerpiece of a duo with vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, Under The Double Moon (september 1980),
and the centerpiece again, in a version that was both more extended (29 minutes) and arranged (for octet), of Episteme (june 1981)
The latter, performed by
trombonist George Lewis, violinist Shem Guibbory, cellist Abdul Wadud, flutist/clarinetist Dwight Andrews, vibraphonist Jay Hoggard, xylophonist Warren Smith
and drummer Pheeroan Aklaff,
displayed a careful, calculating intelligence in the way the instruments were combined, sequenced and juxtaposed.
This phase peaked with Variations In Dream-time (1982), scored for a
sextet of piano, trombone (Lewis), cello (Wadud), clarinet/flute (JD Parran), bass and drums (Aklaff), and containing only two side-long compositions:
the 24-minute Variations in Dream-Time and the 22-minute three-movement Enemy of Light.
Davis, far from rejecting bebop, cool jazz or even swing music (or, for that
matter, African or Indonesian music), was working
outside the free-jazz paradigm, determined to restore composition to its
dominating role. His non-virtuoso style at the piano was little more than a
guide for the development of the composition, a practical expression of an
intimidating musical plot.
Despite the obvious similarities in intent, there was little in these extended
suites that recalled European classical music, other than the occasional
romantic melody. It was, indeed, a unique form of art.
After I've Known Rivers (february 1982), a trio With Newton and Wadud containing
Davis' Still Waters, Wadud's Tawaafa and two Newton compositions (Juneteenth and After You Said Yes),
the 39-minute five-movement ballet suite Hemispheres (july 1983), scored for piano, trumpet (Leo Smith), trombone (Lewis), flute/clarinet (Andrews), violin (Guibbory), cello (Eugene Friesen), vibraphone, clarinet, bass and drums (Aklaff), recycled some old themes but mainly increased the degree of structure.
Davis continued to experiment with rhythmic movement and instability,
pitting constant pulses against angular tempos, extracting pathos from the
collision of instrumental parts in different tempos. Davis' compositions
were layered, having at least a lower layer of rhythmic organization and
a higher level of lyrical/melodic soundpainting, and relying on the continuous
contrast between the two levels for the spontaneous emergence of meaning.
The display of sophistication continued with the 15-minute Middle Passage, on Middle Passage (1984), that also contained Earl Howard's 16-minute Particle W for piano and tape, Davis' first encounter with electronic music,
with the four-movement Wayang 5 (1984) for piano and symphonic orchestra, first recorded on The Ghost Factory (may 1988), that also contained the three-movement violin concerto Maps (1987),
and especially with Undine (june 1986), that contained two 23-minute compositions, Still Waters and Undine, scored for piano, cello (Wadud), vibraphone/percussion (Gerry Hemingway), bassoon (David Miller), violin (Guibbory), flute and clarinet (Marty Ehrlich and JD Parran).
Seven years after the fact, Davis returned to the format of the trio With Newton's flute and Wadud's cello Trio2 (october 1989), with Davis' Who's Life (1978) and Newton's Invisible Islands.
Davis' most ambitions compositions were for the theater:
the political opera X - The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986),
the science-fiction opera Under the Double Moon (1989),
the historical opera Amistad (1997), about a slave rebellion, based on the music of Middle Passage,
the opera Tania (1992), about a famous kidnapping case,
and music for two plays,
Angels in America Part I - Millennium Approaches (premiered in april 1993) and
Angels in America Part II: Perestroika Sounds Without Nouns (premiered in november 1994).
But Davis also composed orchstral works:
Notes from the Underground (1988),
Violin Sonata (1991),
Jacob's Ladder (premiered in october 1997).
Anthony Davis' clarinet concerto
You Have The Right To Remain Silent premiered in april 2007.
Notes From The Underground (2014)
Davis' first studio album in
26 years, collects three compositions:
Wayang V (1984) in four movements for solo piano and orchestra
(part of a series of gamelan-inspired works);
Notes From The Underground (1988) for full orchestra
(based on Duke Ellington's Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue);
and You Have The Right To Remain Silent (2007) for solo clarinet
and chamber ensemble.
documents a session with Kyle Motl on contrabass and Kjell Nordeson on drums.