Canadian pianist Ron Davis has chosen the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as the European launch pad for his band SymphRONica’s latest album, UpfRONt. SymphRONica combines a jazz quartet with a string quartet and Rob Adams spoke to Toronto-based Davis about the band, the album and his enthusiasm for the Edinburgh Fringe.
In addition to 18 SymphRONica dates, Ron Davis will be playing some two dozen other gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe. He appears with his wife, singer Daniela Nardi at famous Edinburgh delicatessen Valvona & Crolla and, further down Leith Walk, in a series of afternoon jazz sessions at Leith Depot with SymphRONica guitarist Kevin Barrett and guests.
London Jazz News: What is the central idea behind SymphRONica?
Ron Davis: Music without borders. Music that isn’t afraid to incorporate groove, rock, world or classical influences while staying true to its jazz roots. Accessible music. But with integrity and originality.
Thoughtful music. Acoustic music. Electric music. Enjoyable music. Emotional music. From both the heart and the head. A celebration of music in every way. And also a celebration of musicians. It’s a highly collaborative project that brings together established voices (me, our music director Kevin Barrett) and amazing newer voices (our string leader Aline Homzy). The “sym” in SymphRONica means “together”. SymphRONica is all about bringing musics and musicians together. And listeners too, of course.
LJN: You have a classical background as well as a deep interest in jazz; how do you view these two musical strands in today’s marketplace?
RD: At the moment, both classical and jazz are experiencing a lull in the marketplace, certainly in Canada. But this is temporary. There are already signs of a serious resurgence. Jazz and Western classical are the musics people come to, not the ones they start from. That was true for my own musical growth, and it’s so true for many others. You may start listening to rock or pop. Then explore other genres. And then you end up with hugely fulfilling sounds of jazz and classical. Everything is cyclical. The cycle is turning this way.
LJN: There are other influences at work in SymphRONica; can you describe them and where your interest in them comes from?
RD: The multiple influences are all rooted in the saying attributed to many people, including one of my musical deities, J. S. Bach (and also another one – Duke Ellington): “There are only two kinds of music, good music and bad music”. When I grew up, there were hard borders between classical, jazz, Indian, Gospel, Arabic, Jewish, etc., music. I was told by the classical people that jazz was beneath them. The bebop players told me that swing was no good, and the swing players told me the reverse. And everybody dumped on folk music. And yet, I loved Bach, I loved Art Tatum, I loved Betty Carter, Joni
Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, Cesaria Evora, Oscar Peterson, Cecil Taylor and so many others.
SymphRONica is simply a reflection of this visceral truth. It is not some grand design plotted out in
architectural drawings. I love good music and try to make good music whatever its shape, form or source. And so, you will hear the sounds of swing jazz and bebop, Middle Eastern and Latin, bop and funk. And more. It’s all there.
LJN: You use the strapline, “This is the music you’ve been looking for, the jazz you want to hear!”; what is the thinking behind this?
RD: I hear many people say they are tired of the music that is widely available. I hear many people say they don’t “understand” jazz. That they don’t know where to start with jazz. I hear many people say that
jazz has become ritualized for them. The strapline emerges from all those comments. It is meant to speak to those people. And it’s also a universal invitation. My way of letting everyone know that SymphRONica is an inviting space, a wide open space, and a welcoming musical space.
LJN: How did you go about planning your latest album, UpfRONt and what aims did you have in mind?
RD: The idea with UpfRONt was to preserve the unique SymphRONica sound, but shine a different light on it, and inject new energy into it. UpfRONt is my 12th record. And as with all my records, I didn’t want to repeat anything I’d done before. I already had two SymphRONica recordings. So, with this one I looked for a new approach. And that came in the person of the producer, Mike Downes. This is the first
time I’ve handed over production of a record to someone else. And not just anyone. Mike is one of the world’s great bass players (Pat Metheny is on record as saying that Mike is one of his favourites).
Mike is also an amazing composer, arranger and all-around musician. The sound you hear on UpfRONt is the sound shaped by a master jazz player and musical mind. We had a dozen terrific tunes and arrangements ready to go. Mike took them to stratospheric levels. I had to twist his arm a bit to record Popeye. At first he thought it wasn’t serious enough. But as you hear on the record, he came around
and we turned it into a most serious jazz barnburner.
LJN: This is your fourth visit to the Fringe; what is it about the event that appeals to you and what would you like to achieve from it ideally?
RD: What doesn’t appeal about the Fringe? I tell other artists that the Fringe is the Olympics of the arts. The best artists are there. Top industry people are there. And above all, the finest audiences are
there. Arts-hungry, music-hungry people eager to lap up what you have to say and what you have to play. For me, it is the ideal springboard for SymphRONica and what I hope to really achieve with SymphRONica: to bring the music to as many people, in as many places as possible. Without borders. And there could be no better starting point for that than the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
SymphRONica appears at the Jazz Bar, Chambers Street from 6-10 August and at theSpace @ Niddry Street from 12-24 August.