By last Thursday night, Lowell Davidson had already gone full circle in his style. Before playing with Ornette Coleman in the summer of 1964, his music was tonal, metrical, and fairly conventional except for his obvious technical mastery. Then, last fall at Kirkland House, he played in short, tension-filled jabs at the keyboard that left his audience mostly puzzled. But with the Spring Concert at Quincy House came longer phrasing and a lyricism that echoed earlier styles, although the rhythmic anarchy was still there.
Davidson now seems to be working toward a synthesis. There was a tonality in most of the numbers. But its emphasis was slight enough so that melodic improvisations were not heard solely in relation to the key--or chord movement--as they are in conventional jazz. The instruments played together, unlike last year when they would start and end together but go off in their own rhythmical directions in the middle. Still, there was no "beat," and I don't think I noticed any foot tapping in the audience. Although Davidson's compositions could hardly be called tuneful, there were some memorable melodic lines. "Stately I" sounded like the classic "Milestones."
As usual, the most impressive thing was Davidson's technique. He plays with the high wrist and dangling fingers that you often see on Russian pianists. The sound is pretty percussive, and it is hard, with this technique, to be lyrical. But there is an ease on the fast pasages--the pianist gives the impression that he is gathering the keys rather than playing them--that is enviable. When Davidson was pushed from the opening contemplative mood in "Little Sun" to a driving one by his ever-energetic drummer, he began playing octaves in a hard and fast manner, getting that same orchestral sound out of the piano that made Lalo Schifrin famous when he played piano with Dizzy Gillespie.
Pure speed was also an impressive part of bassist Gary Peacock's playing. It pulled him with flying colors through a long unaccompanied solo in "L". This kind of unaccompanied chorus demands technical proficiency, in addition to purely musical content. For no matter how much thought backs the melodic line, the audience loses the rhythmic and harmonic context normally provided by other instruments; the solo then sounds like a lot of notes in a vacuum. But Peacock's fast playing, by bringing the notes closer together, adds the harmonic element, almost like broken chords.
Drummer Milford Graves played too loud, and should be harnessed. But what he plays is damn good. Talk about technique. You have to get rhythms from the accented strokes, because the slowest he got the whole night was about what would normally be called a "roll."
Clearly, the whole group is technically competent. But technique alone will not take you beyond the level of Czerny. There must also be some kind of substantive musical content, and this is where it becomes more difficult to judge experiments to which the ear is not yet accustomed. The less thoughtful critics, commenting on the attention surrounding Coleman a few years ago, exclaimed that "the Emperor has no clothes." But the real task, it seems to me, is to distinguish the serious musicians like Davidson from the charlatans--the guy who's had his saxophone two weeks and becomes "new school" so he won't have to worry about making mistakes--rather than to dismiss all experimentation.
It is true that, by abandoning "running the changes" (melodic improvisations on a repeating harmonic line) he has cut the ground from under the criteria usually used to judge jazz performances. But he has also adopted new improvisational ideas, based on melodic or rhythmic, rather than harmonic bases.
The melodic basis seems to be used in two ways. The first is to play at a melody instead of simply stating it and then abandoning it completely, as is usually done in conventional jazz. Intervals within the melody, melody fragments, or the shape of the line, will appear in the improvisation. Since all the pieces in this concert were originals it was harder to pick this out than last year, when he was playing familiar melodies. But the technique could be detected, as in "Little Sun" and "Ad Hoc."
The second method is to put the same melody in different contexts. This constitutes a strong return to the classical tradition. Probably the best example is Bach's The Art of the Fugue, in which one theme is put in hundreds of different harmonic, rhythmic, and mood contexts. Davidson played at this method continually Thursday night, perhaps most successfully in "Stately I." The harmonies sound awfully dissonant at first--as did regular triads in the Middle Ages--and the mood changes are more extreme than those in Bach, but the technique is similar.
Rhythmically Davidson tries to take his music beyond the urgency of time, by refusing to impose a metrical structure. The lack of any kind of beat, the sliding-along impression of some of the music, does emphasize the linear continuum (not-spatially-divided) idea of time. But rhythms are often used as a basis for improvisation. Sometimes it is merely the rhythmical imitation of the opening statement that connects the otherwise contrasting chorus to the rest of the piece. And sometimes interesting rhythms serve as counter-subjects in their own right.
It was first with the Charles Mingus group, I believe, that people began commenting on a drummer using counter-subjects while other instruments were playing their choruses. This was because Mingus carried the beat so strongly on the bass. But with the need for a beat gone, Milford Graves could improvise constantly, as he did so successfully in "Sonnet." At one point, where "Sonnet" became very contrapuntal, I was getting that same exciting feeling you sometimes get with Baroque music: feeling three voices going in different directions--hearing the independent movement of each--and hearing a good total sound simultaneously.
The Emperor has clothes.