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Angela Davis: “I’m just trying to be as honest and as real as I can be”

I’ve been thinking about Angela Davis‘ music and for some reason, this idea has stuck to my mind: if she was a writer, her books would be found at the library’s ‘young adult’ literature section. And by that, I don’t mean that her music lacks maturity or gravitas – on the contrary: as a composer, she has a way to approach complex ideas in a seemingly simple, understated manner; as a performer, she takes her audience for an adventure, a joyful journey of self-discovery, filled with passion and compassion. No, what I mean is that she has a certain kind of youthful energy and optimism that makes for a major part of her sound; it’s a quality that makes even her most low-key, introspective work, end up being uplifting, pretty much the way that good young adult fiction tackles the human condition and life’s challenges in an inspirational manner. Since her relocation to Melbourne, after spending eight years in New York, she has become an integral part of the city’s jazz scene and on Friday 26 May she will celebrate with a concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Which is a perfect opportunity for a bit of catching up.

How have things been since your relocation and our last interview?

It’s been two years since I relocated back to Australia and during that time I’ve been very lucky to play a wide array of music with many different groups. I’ve really enjoyed being a sideman with groups like Johannes Luebbers Dectet, Louisa Rankin’s quintet and numerous Big Bands including ATM15 and Daryl Mckenzie’s Jazz Orchestra. I’ve also established two of my own quartets – both with Sam Anning and Hugh Harvey in the rhythm section, but one with Jon Delaney on guitar and the other with Grant Windsor on piano, which is the group I’ll be performing with at the Recital Hall. I guess I was pleasantly surprised to be regularly playing such diverse music, but the scene here is very vibrant and also very welcoming. I’ve also recently been appointed as a Lecturer at the James Morrison Academy of Music in SA – a job that I’m absolutely loving. The students there are so very talented and I’m constantly inspired by them. So, my life here in Melbourne is full of music- and that is all I ever wanted.

In what way are your two quartets different from each other (apart from the obvious, of course)?

Well, we end up playing quite different music with both quartets. With Jon, I like to keep things a little more free and open; he has the ability to create these incredible soundscapes that work with a sparse melodic concept, whereas the quartet with Grant has a more straight-ahead, standards vibe. Grant plays with so much beauty and at the same time always injects a lot of energy into the group.

But both bands play your material, right?

Yes, but currently it’s always a mixture of my own compositions and my favourite compositions of others. But the groups definitely reflect where I stand as a composer, and my next goal is to have a whole new set of original music for both quartets – something I’m determined to tackle this Winter, during the Uni break.

You mentioned playing your favourite compositions of others. Such as?

With the quartet with Jon, I love playing the music of Jakob Bro – we play a composition called ‘Evening Song‘ and the melodic and harmonic structure is so simple yet so beautiful and the result is different every time. Another favorite is Bernie McGann’s ‘Mex’. With the ‘Grant Quartet’ we play more my favourite standards, for example Thad Jones’ ‘Lady Luck’, as well as some Dave Brubeck compositions, including ‘Fujiyama‘ and ‘Toki’s Theme‘.

It’s interesting that you play Bernie McGann’s music. Usually you either get people playing their own music or the standards, it’s not common to play music that was created within the Australian jazz scene. I believe there should be more of that.

I agree, there’s so much great writing out there in the Australian scene – it’s always nice to celebrate that. I play what inspires me, and Bernie wrote so many incredible compositions, I’ve only really started to properly discover his music in the last few years. Unfortunately I never got to hear him play live. I wish i had.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve recently listened to?

Probably ‘Daylight at Midnight’ by Taylor Eigsti and Kenny Wheeler’s ‘Still Waters’ with Brian Dickinson. Great writing on both and just so much beautiful music to dig into.

And what about your own music? Do you have new material ready?

I’ve written a few new ones already, some of which I’ll hopefully play on May 26, but I really need to have a chunk of time to dedicate just to writing, which will be in June and July for me.

Are you planning to record?

No, I’ll probably want to play the music live a few times and then I’ll think about that.

What have you planned for the Melbourne Recital Centre concert?

We’ll be playing some music from my album, ‘Lady Luck’, without the strings, of course, and a few new ones and also some of the tunes we’ve been playing over the last year or so. There’s a fine line between organizing everything thoroughly and keeping it spontaneous on the night. I still keep on being inspired by the quartet gigs of Joe Lovano and Tom Harrell that I saw live at the Village Vanguard in New York. It seems as though the material was sometimes just a vehicle to communicate and create in the moment with the rest of the band. They’re still some of the most memorable gigs I’ve ever seen. I guess we all keep on developing and growing, so hopefully the music just gets better and better and we’re able to communicate on a higher level.

How have you seen the music of ‘Lady Luck’ grow and develop from the moment it was released?

I played the music of ‘Lady Luck’ in full with strings and quartet at the Empire Theatre in Toowoomba last year with a completely different set of musicians from the recording and it was great to see how different personalities and playing styles affect the music. The material is still the same, but the outcome is always a little different, in a very beautiful way, with other musicians. Steve Newcomb, who arranged all of the charts for strings, wasn’t able to be in New York when we recorded the album, but he actually played piano on the Toowoomba gig, which as you can imagine, was very special. Other than that I haven’t played the material that much, so I’m looking forward to playing a few of the tunes in a quartet setting at the Recital Centre.

How is a gig at the Melbourne Recital Centre different than one at a club?

Well, for starters it’s an honor to play at such a prestigious Melbourne venue that programs such incredible music. The salon has incredible acoustics and I cannot wait to play with the quartet in there. But I guess the main difference is that it’s more of a concert rather than just a set of music where the audience may occasionally talk and there’s some noise at the bar. Takes things up a notch, I guess…

What is your perception of your own evolution as an artist?

How I’ve evolved as an artist is parallel to how my life has evolved: new experiences, new friends, moving countries; I think that all changes the way I play in some way. Plus, I keep practicing in the hope of getting better and discovering new ideas.I’m just trying to be as honest and as real as I can be. The more I experience as a human and the more I practice, the closer I am to being able to portray what I’m hearing and feeling to an audience. In a more light hearted vein, I’m just trying to have fun and enjoy the music and enjoy being a musician.

How will you know that you’ ll have achieved your artistic goals?

I don’t think I’ll ever get to the stage where I’ve achieved what I’m looking for. That’s the beauty of this music: no matter how good we get, we can always get better, at the music and on our instruments. We can always find new sounds and concepts, get better at certain styles within the genre and we can always write more music.

Do you ever think of how things mights have been for you, if you had stayed in New York?

No, not really. I try not to think like that. I still think moving back to Australia was the right move. Good question though.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

317 East 32nd Street – Lennie Tristano

About Nikos Fotakis

I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king. Also a father, a husband, a writer, an editor, a coffee addict, a type 1 diabetic and an expat. Born and raised in Athens. Based in Melbourne. Jazz is my country.

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