10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

Ten Tracks by Richard Davis (1930-2023).. a tribute by Olie Brice

Richard Davis. Born Chicago, Illinois, 15 April 1930. Died Madison, Wisconsin. 6 September 2023

UK Bassist Olie Brice’s tribute to a very great bassist takes the form of a “Ten Tracks” Feature. He writes:

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Richard Davis – who has died just a few days ago at the age of 93 – was one of a handful of the truly greatest jazz bassists of all time. Often the double bassists who drive big bands, appear on high profile pop sessions and perform with leading orchestras are not the same artists who are at the cutting edge of jazz but in Richard Davis’ case he could do everything and do it all with an astonishing swagger, freedom, drive, imagination and virtuosity.

1 – Bee Vamp from ‘Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot

I’m pretty sure this album was the first Richard Davis I heard, years before I became a bassist myself. One of the greatest live albums in the history of recorded jazz. Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron and Ed Blackwell are all on fire, and Davis is in the middle of the storm driving things on, creating a magic carpet of ideas and swing. There’s a vital lesson in this performance – there is clearly confusion throughout the piece over the form, whether the solos are following the pedal/swing sections or opening up. I think most musicians today would reject this take – yet its some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard. Mistakes are not necessarily mistakes.

2 – Black Fire from Andrew Hill – Black Fire

Along with Eric Dolphy, Andrew Hill is probably the other bandleader I associate the most strongly with Davis. Between 1963 and 1965 Richard Davis played on a run of 7 astonishing Andrew Hill albums, each and every one of which is an unmissable masterpiece. I love them all dearly, but maybe my favourite of all is the first, Black Fire, a wild quartet ride with Joe Henderson on tenor and Roy Haynes on drums. The title tune is classic Davis, with all the trademarks – wild intervallic leaps in his lines, gloriously propulsive swing that always threatens rubato but somehow still makes the form as clear as anything, a fantastic if brief solo… I’ve long been fascinated by music that can create an illusion of two separate lines in a single voiced instrument – Bach’s violin sonatas and Evan Parker’s solo soprano playing come to mind – and Davis has the capacity to do that in his line in the mist of a whole quartet improvising.

3 – Spectrum from Andrew Hill – Point of Departure

I could have picked any track from this iconic album, but I’ve gone for ‘Spectrum’ because it’s fascinating to hear Davis navigating so many shifts and different approaches in the same tune. Andrew Hill’s writing was so ahead of it’s time, and this piece combines an ostinato in 5/8 with free sections in a truly groundbreaking way, with Richard Davis a central force in the whole thing . I want to quote Hill from the liner notes – “As for Richard Davis, he is the greatest bass player in existence”

4 – Hat and Beard from Eric Dolphy – Out to Lunch

Hopefully everyone reading this already knows this classic masterpiece of an album – if not stop reading and go and get a copy now! I love the transition from the written material to the improvising on this tune – bang! We’re straight off into the stratosphere, but at the same time completely involved with the composition. Listening back to these albums to narrow down this shortlist, I’m struck by how much I’ve stolen from Richard Davis for my own playing – both on purpose and inadvertently. One example is used a lot on this piece – the use of a big whack on the lowest E string, as a snare-like punctuation as much as a pitched note.

5 – Come Sunday from Eric Dolphy – Iron Man

This is so beautiful! Duet for bass clarinet and arco bass. Davis had a gorgeous arco sound – he worked with orchestras under conductors as prestigious as Stravinsky, Boulez and Bernstein – and it’s perfectly showcased here with so much space. Sublime. There are four more duo takes from this recording session available, and they’re all magical.

6 – Everything Happens to Me from Elvin Jones – Dear John C

If I had to choose just one track to show why I love Davis’ playing so much it would probably be this one. Beautifully recorded, it has all the trademarks – incredible swing, outrageous swoops and leaps, an unexpectedly wild solo in a pretty straight ahead tune – I’m in danger of repeating myself but it’s just classic Richard Davis!

7 – Shiny Stockings from Elvin Jones & Richard Davis from ‘Heavy Sounds’

Davis’ relationship with Elvin Jones at this point was so productive. This album, is a couple of years later than Dear John C, and very much in the same vein. Perfect illustration of combining clarity and mystery in the same walking bass – check out those octaves 30 seconds in!

8 – Jeeps Blues from Lawrence Brown (with Johnny Hodges)– ‘Inspired Abandon’

As well as working with the cutting edge of 60s jazz, Davis sounded just as at-home and just as much himself with elder masters of previous generations. Who else was making albums with Eric Dolphy and Johnny Hodges in the same year?! This track, from a great Lawrence Brown album, features one of the most swinging walking blues ever recorded – Davis manages to sound completely in the idiom with these Ellingtonians, without avoiding the slides, rhythmic hiccups and surprises that make it so clearly him.

9 – Parisian Thoroughfare from The Jaki Byard Experience

Yet another great rhythm section – Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson made quite a few records together under different horn players’ leadership – the 3 Booker Ervin albums are great. This is my favourite though, under Byard’s name and with the mindblowing Roland Kirk making up the quartet. This track swings wildly, and has a fantastic bass solo.

10 – Vienna from Clifford Jordan – In the World

A track with two bassists! Richard Davis and Wilbur Ware making some magic happen on this gorgeous Clifford Jordan tune. Well worth listening to this one with headphones or serious speakers – I love the way Davis and Ware don’t really bother keeping out of each others way, but Ware’s huge clarity and Davis’ sense of adventure result in a complex and beautiful total bass voice. Wonderful duo section as well. The whole album is great, my favourite Clifford Jordan record. Incidentally the liner notes credit Wilbur Ware with the arco playing, but I’m 99% sure that’s wrong.

With an artist as versatile as Davis, who has been active at the very highest level for over 5 decades, I’ve inevitably left out loads of great music.
I also love:

  • The two duo albums with Walt Dickerson
  • Both of the Creative Construction Company records
  • Joe Henderson’s ‘In n’ Out’
  • Earl Hines’ ‘Once Upon a Time’
  • Roland Kirk’s ‘Rip Rig and Panic’

Any of these could made my list! In checking a discography to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything I’ll kick myself for, I also realise there’s still loads I haven’t spent sufficient time with – I don’t know any of his albums as a leader well enough, and that duo record with Archie Shepp sounds amazing on first listen… Plenty to keep me studying for years to come…

LINK: Wikipedia’s Richard Davis discography
LJN’s Ten Tracks full archive
Olie Brice’s website

2 replies »

  1. Lovely piece Olie, thank you. I’m looking forward to listening to some old favourites in a new light as well as getting on to a couple that I’ve never heard before.

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